This weekend the Scottish RSC Open Stages peeps are meeting up for the regional showcase of our productions at the Dundee Rep – sadly, school's out for us St Andreans, and I'm back in Denmark, meaning we aren't able to attend with the HamletStA group. Instead, I've written a (not so) little something about the production and my thoughts behind it, which I thought might be nice to put up here as well. Missing everyone a lot at the moment!
For Us and for Our Tragedy
Monsters are people too. And people can be monsters. If the world could simply be divided up into good and bad people, things would be easy; but the complexities and chaos of life, human fallibility, the relationships we create and the ripple effects they have, is what we have to deal with. Leaving behind the heroes and villains, my aim with this production of Hamlet was to explore the people of Elsinore – and how things can spin out of control, even when everyone is trying to do what they believe is right. That, I think, is our tragedy.
In my initial working with the text, that idea took on a couple of different forms; it led to removing any admission of guilt from Claudius in Hamlet Senior’s murder; to cutting or altering the flow of scenes where people other than Hamlet see the ghost; and to internalising the ghost to Hamlet, so that he would speak both sets of lines.
To a modern audience, Claudius really is the ruler you would rather have; he tries to solve an international conflict through diplomacy, while one of the first things we hear of Hamlet Senior, is how he won Fortinbras’ fathers’ lands by gambling his own kingdom on which of the two kings could kill the other in single combat (I.i.80-95). From that, and from how his ghost speaks to Hamlet and is possessive of Gertrude, he always struck me as an abusive and manipulative character, masculinity and alpha male ideals at their worst.
This casts Hamlet’s struggle to act in a new light; as potentially a struggle to accept or reject the hyper masculinity his father tried to instil in him, most likely to Hamlet Senior’s disappointment. The death of someone dear to us can be devastating; but the death of a parent with whom we have a conflicted relationship means the sadness is mixed with old anger and hurt which can never be resolved, perhaps topped with a bit of guilt for not missing them quite enough. This is where I found my foundation for Hamlet’s oscillations between manic ramblings and black holes of despair, between sensitivity and abusiveness.
The second goal with this production was to explore the role of women in the story. Traditionally, the only two female characters in Hamlet are Gertrude, the Mother, and Ophelia, the Girlfriend – both defined by their relationship with Hamlet, and often portrayed with very little agency of their own. Hamlet is verbally abusive of them both, and seems to consider himself as having the right to control his mother’s sexuality and love life. Often this is excused by the fact that we know Claudius is a murderer – but removing that certainty lets us see Hamlet more as any other kid not too keen on their new stepdad, demanding their mum simply remain celibate. What if Gertrude did actually marry for love, to someone who helped her through an abusive relationship with his brother? And what if she, on top of that, wanted to protect her mentally fragile teenage son from attempting to run an entire country? Hamlet feels abandoned and betrayed by her, but it does not seem farfetched to think that both he and Denmark may be better off with Claudius as ruler. Developing her struggle between re-establishing a relationship with her son, and a husband who increasingly sees Hamlet as a threat to national security and the stability of government, helps make her a more fully-fledged character.
Ophelia is the other main woman I wanted to make more visible as a person. Even in madness and suicide, her main obligation often seems to remain being ‘pretty’, as in the famous pre-Raphaelite painting of her, or any number of pictures of pretty young women peacefully floating in bathtubs filled with flowers, which come up when you google her name. This fetishisation and romanticising of virginal death belies the fact that neither madness nor suicide tends to be very pretty, not even in young women, and seems to transform the way she is thought of from a suffering person to a beautifully melancholy object.
By making her father Polonius less the bumbling old man, more the cunning politician who despises ‘superiors’ who simply inherit their titles, no matter their fitness to rule, she becomes entangled in familial bonds and obligations as complicated and manipulative as Hamlet’s. The contrast between Polonius’ instruction to Laertes of ‘to thine own self be true’ (I.iii.565) and the control he exerts over Ophelia, even forcing her to spy on her boyfriend, is stark. In this production, we both explored and built up hers and Hamlet’s relationship, allowing a tenderness to come before Hamlet’s discovery of her betrayal; and following her madness, let her commit suicide on stage while her brother and King Claudius asserted that ‘revenge should have no bounds’ (IV.vii.129) when it came to Hamlet. Contrasting Gertrudes romanticised story of a peaceful death of flowers and singing, was an insane girl who climbed in a dumpster with her life sized rag doll, and slit her wrists with a razor she found there. At the end of the scene, a group of attendants had to roll the dumpster off, put up the Health & Safety required ‘Caution Wet Floor’ sign, and mop up the blood. Death and suicide is not romantic, but neither is it simply grand and melancholy; it is also banal, sometimes uncomfortably, morbidly funny, and there is always someone who has to do the cleanup. Moving from a ‘mermaid-like’ death to a sad, banal, human death, allows Ophelia to be more than an objectified plot device.
All these ideas were floating around in my head in some form or other when I applied to Open Stages three years ago, but so much of this production was created as a collaboration between a bunch of amazing people. I will be forever grateful to the RSC for facilitating this entire project, through which I, my actors and my production team met so many wonderful people keen to help us with the things we were struggling with, provide input and new ideas, and mutual support between us directors. Special thanks, of course, to the Dundee Rep, to Gemma, and to Leila and Enza who agreed to mentor our set and costume designers; and from me personally to Joe Douglas who has been fantastically helpful, encouraging, and brilliant as a pair of fresh eyes whenever I found myself stumped. I was lucky enough to have a talented and committed cast, and a wonderfully creative production team who took my fledgling ideas and concepts and turned them into things I hadn’t even dreamt of. I am so sorry we weren’t all able to come celebrate with you today, but know I am sending you all my love here from (so far) sunny and summery Copenhagen.