29 April 2008

Hamlet - Northern Ballet Theatre @ Sadler's Wells, Friday 25th April 2008

Synopsis (no, its not what you think - read it as otherwise my review will make no sense!):

Wartime occupied France. Hamlet, in mourning for his dead father, appears through the steam from a train. People pass him by as he stands lost in thought. He has a vision of a dark alley, a scuffle, a beating. He remembers a Parisian restaurant in 1939 - a farewell dinner for Hamlet, Laertes and Horatio who are joining the army to fight the Germans and his mother and father as they dance together [this is what the programme said; I'm assuming that the army arent fighting the Germans and Hamlet's mother and father]. The station is chaotic and frightening. People are being humiliated, arrested and beaten. Hamlet looks for his mother who was to meet him. Polonius, now working with the Germans, speaks to the Nazi officers. He whisks Hamlet away to the officical residence of the Head of Police, Hamlet's home before the war.

Gertrude and Claudius are hosting a party. Hamlet watches Ophelia talking to the Germans and the affection between Claudius and his mother. He leaves, distressed by the collaboration with the Germans and his mother's new marriage. In his bedroom, he senses his father's presence but the image is broken as Horatio and Ophelia come to find him. Laertes interrupts Hamlet's reunion with Ophelia but Hamlet sends him away. Laertes returns with Polonius who pulls the couple apart. When he sees Ophelia is wearing a new necklace, he demands she removes it and presents her with a swastika.

New images of the day return to haunt Hamlet. His vision of the beating in the alley returns - as the man raises his head, Hamlet realises it is his father. He sees his father's office, a Nazi officer places a swastika on the desk. When he refuses this, Hamlet realises that Claudius signed his death warrant.

Hamlet spies on his mother and her new husband making love. He considers suicide.

Horatio seeks out Hamlet to heal the rift between Ophelia and his friend. Hamlet confronts Ophelia and before a resolution can be found, Laertes escorts Hamlet to his uncle's office, where Polonius, Claudius and the SS are interrogating a member of the Resistance. Hamlet is shown what could happen to him if he doesnt comply. As he leaves, he turns back to the chair and realises that his father sat in that chair having been beaten and tortured. Hamlet and Horatio break into the desk and steal Hamlet's father's death warrent.

Hamlet arrives for dinner, wearing his father's coat. He indicates that he knows Claudius killed his father and that he has evidence. Claudius leaves Gertrude to discipline her son, leaving Polonius as a hidden spy. As Hamlet is about to show her the death warrant, Polonius tries to snatch it. Hamlet stabs him, thinking he is Claudius. Claudius returns and reaslises that Hamlet has committed murder. Laertes and Ophelia return to find their dead father and, on seeing the knife in Claudius's own hand, attack him as the murderer. Claudius denies that he is the killer and implicates Hamlet. Claudius signs a death warrant - Hamlet's. He goes on the run.

Gertrude and Claudius attend a ball at the German embassy. Ophelia arrives with a posy of small swastikas, which she hands out . She leaves the ball and loses her mind [as you do]. She is followed and assaulted by Nazi soldiers. Laertes arrives and sees his sister with Hamlet, and they fight. Claudius arrives with the SS and Hamlet's death warrant. Hamlet is shot dead.

A crowd celebrates the liberation of the city and we see the fates of Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes. Horatio is left alone to mourn Hamlet's death.

Well, I hope you followed that. Because basically - I didn't. I think you would have to be far more familiar with the tale of Shakespeare's Danish prince than I am to have been able to relate this to what was actually happening on stage. As far as I could see, the only correlation was a moody suicidal with a mad girlfriend and a couple of dodgy mates. No battlements, no gravediggers, no windy courtyards, no "play within a play" no Fortinbras sub-pot, no dewey eyed, lanky blond bloke with a pudding basin haircut, black tabard and an inability to make up his bleeding mind..... Ah yes, said Him Indoors, but you see the characters in the ballet share the names of the characters in the play. But, I replied, you could call them Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb, and unless they are rescuing one of Mrs. Honeyman's Pekingese dogs from a puddle in the park, assisting Doctor Mopp with the six-monthly "drop and cough" on the boys at Pippin Fort or rehearsing that tune that they played on the town bandstand week after week after week, you ain't watching Trumpton, love. Ah yes, said Him Indoors, but you see the themes are the same. But, I replied, where is Windy Miller in all this?

As you might have gathered from this, and the synopsis, I thought the connection between the source material and this ballet was tenuous, to say the least, and probably only Hamletophiles would have been able to see the join. In fact, so confused did I become that I stopped engaging with what was happening on the stage and just stared blankly, hoping that I might spot some point of reference - a skull, perhaps, or Ken Dodd dressed as Yorick. But no. I did kind of see a parallel during Ophelia's mad scene (although forget "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, there's pansies, thats for thoughts......" - what we got was "ear y'ar love, have a swasticka-on-a-stick, but 'urry up cos I'm due to go off me 'ead very soon") but quite honestly by this point I was well overdue a mad scene of my own.
Whatever inspired NBT's Artistic Director to come out with this load of tosh (other than his own deluded sense of self-importance, of course) is beyond me, and it seemed that the Good People of London Town agreed with me - at this performance there were only about 40 people in the Circle, and I gather that so few were in the Circle on Saturday evening that they closed it completely and moved people down to the stalls. Another "artistic triumph but financial disaster" for NBT. The man needs a good kick up the arras if you ask me.
What made this all doubly obscure (literally) was that all the second half was played out behind a scrim (a very thin curtain rendered see-through by lighting the stage behind it). This is usually a conceit employed in ballet during dream or fantasy sequences - were we to infer that Act 2 was all the product of Hamlet's deluded mind? Dunno, basically.
Another problem which interfered with the story was the dreadfully boring scenery. Now, Im all for doing this on the cheap if you can get away with it and there is some relevance to it, but what we got was basically two huge rotating boxes, the front parts of which were built out as flights of stairs. The sections at the back did treble duty for bathrooms (you could tell it was a bathroom because there was a little mirror hanging over the sink), dining rooms, bedrooms, offices, streets... in fact, anything that wasnt a staircase. This would have been all very well had not most of the action taken place in, on, around and under staircases. It felt like:
Act 1, sc 1: an alleyway between two staircases
Act 1, sc 2: a staircase
Act 1, sc 3: a grand staircase (both staircases having been joined together)
Act 1, sc 4: a bathroom
Act 1, sc 5: a different staircase
Act 1, sc 6: another part of the staircase
Act 1, sc 7: a ball (taking place in front of a staircase), and so on, ad nauseum, until I longed to shout "bring on a bloody sofa, for chrissakes!"
According to the blurb in the programme (and the total lack of punctuation is completely Sadlers Wells's): "Hamlet is of course one of the best examples of the power of the written word but dance has often been able to express those emotions that are difficult to express in other ways". So you will excuse me for having stood in the foyer on the way out expressing "What the fuck was all that about?" through the medium of dance.
What the critics thought:

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