Thursday 16 March 2017

Shorts: Much blunted purpose...

[: on Hamlet...]

I meant to write this piece about a week ago, but instead – aptly – I just kept thinking about doing it instead of actually doing it.

The point of this piece is to try to pin down the meaning of the one scene in Rob Icke’s Hamlet that neither I, nor Michael Billington, nor several of my friends, properly understood. It is Act 3, scene iii. Specifically it’s the bit where Hamlet comes across Claudius, essentially talking to himself about having murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father.

Traditionally, the scene is played with the actor playing Claudius probably facing out to the audience (or a bit sideways, if it’s a fourth wall, psychological realism production), with the actor playing Hamlet creeping in somewhere where Claudius obviously can’t see him. Claudius says his bit, and Hamlet tells us, the audience, that he could kill Claudius there and then, but since he’s praying, that’s no kind of revenge, because Claudius killed Old Hamlet before he’d had a chance to confess his sins. Played like this, I’ve always thought Hamlet’s reasoning was pretty sound. But that belief hinges entirely on everything that’s been said to Hamlet being true. Essentially, it hinges on believing – at least in the world of the play – in ghosts.

In Icke’s production (at least on press night – for all I know, the scene may now have undergone a bit of tweaking since I saw it), Claudius and Hamlet play the scene facing each other. And, for the only time in the play, I was unsure who could see whom. I didn’t know what was meant to be real, and what wasn’t. Which I found interesting. Not least because in all other respects, the production is marked by a startling clarity.

It’s not the first time that Icke has brought his own logic, plus his cinema-literate thinking, to bear on a classic text. In his Oresteia, Icke – perhaps irritable with inconsistencies between the position of Electra in the Oresteia, and in the play Electra, and in other versions of the story – seemed to imply that maybe there was no Electra. That Orestes only had one sister, Iphigenia, who had been murdered by their father, Agamemnon. In order to avenge Agamemnon’s subsequent murder by Clytemnestra – Agamemnon’s wife, Orestes’s mother, Iphigenia’s mother – he creates another sister, outraged by the murder of her father, to help him tip the balance of justice and convince himself to murder his own mother in revenge for her murder of his father. We see, on stage, what only Orestes can see in his mind. Here, I wonder if the same device is used, with the purpose and thinking almost exactly reversed.

It was Andrzej Łukowski in his Time Out review, who offered possibly the strongest reading of Icke’s Hamlet from the initial batch of reviews – it is a Hamlet that does not believe Claudius killed Old Hamlet. (I’m also indebted in this piece to the thoroughness and rigour of Florence Bell’s review.) It’s a compelling thesis, and thinking about it certainly opens up ways for thinking about how 3.iii operates.

Consider this: there is no proof that Claudius murders Old Hamlet except that Hamlet is told so by a ghost, and then this confession. Claudius’s exit – across the stage in this production – at The Mousetrap (The Murder of Gonzago) could simply be down to his being royally fucked off with Hamlet’s shit (as Andrzej memorably put it on Twitter). So there are only two real “proofs”.

The Ghost in Icke’s production is ambiguous. Something happens, clearly, because Hamlet isn’t the only person who “sees” it. At least, Horatio, Marcellus, and some guards see a ghost in their machine, but on screen only, and silent. Only Hamlet sees The Ghost on stage. And he can embrace it. Clap his hands on it. Have a loving father-son embrace with it. Should that alert us to the idea that this isn’t how ghosts are meant to exist? Is this ghost a phantasm of Hamlet’s misery; a conjuration of his mind so tangible to him that he can hold it? It’s notable, for example, that this ghost never exhorts the others to swear the oath that Hamlet offers them. As well as no one else ever seeing the “live” (on-stage) ghost, no one else ever hears it either. Is Icke telling us to stop being so silly? That ghosts aren’t real, we damn well know it, and to watch the play like sensible moderns? Or at least, is that one reading he’s now made strongly available to us? It strikes me as plausible.

From this then proceeds a possible answer to what’s happening in 3.iii. This Claudius too, could be a live fragment from Hamlet’s mind. A thinking-through by the Danish prince of what he’d do if he could kill Claudius, who all the while is confessing to his crime.

I even wonder if the fact that the scene does feel unclear when you first see it isn’t ultimately more helpful to audiences than a more signposted, spoonfeedy version would be. It’s this scene, and not knowing how to pin it down, that has made me think harder about what Icke might be saying with his Hamlet than any other scene – most of which I just “enjoyed”. Rather than being a mistake, it feels like it might be a necessary rupture in the whole that forces us to think about what it is we’re watching. The glitch that draws attention to the constructedness of the perfection around it.

Having said all that, I’d still be really fascinated to read Icke (or Scott, or Wright)’s own explanations for what they’re doing in that moment, at some point in the future.

Still listening to this, btw:

*apologies for the horrible visual pun in the cover photo.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wondered at the time if this scene was a throwback to a moment earlier in the production (post-ghost) when we see Hamlet walking through the glass corridor, pointing the gun in front of him, deep in thought (maybe muttering to himself?). I think 3.iii also happened in a corridor of light (?) and had some of the same movement from Scott, as though we were now getting an 'interior' perspective of what we saw before. I may have just collated the two moments in hindsight.

I do like that Claudius doesn't get a soliloquy. It's always felt a bit jarring in the productions I've seen (except for maybe Ostermeier's) to change the dramaturgical language so late in the day after we've only had that kind of heightened access to Hamlet's thoughts.