Hamlet within This Wooden “O”

July 22, 2019 by

It’s the season of open air Shakespeare performances. Last summer, our blogger Ann Morrissey watched Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in London and she left the tragedy feeling “strangely uplifted.” We enjoyed her takeaways, and decided to re-post her thoughts from last summer.

The Globe Theatre

This summer the Globe Ensemble are performing two Shakespeare plays at the Globe Theatre: As You Like It and Hamlet. On a recent trip to London, we experienced the latter. I confess I had not read Hamlet since my senior year in high school decades ago. It did not captivate me then, but now I’m hooked.

Another confession: Although I did breeze through a Sparknotes synopsis of the play, I had neither read a review of this performance nor boned up on the players. When I opened a programme, I winced when I saw that Hamlet, the protagonist, would be played by a woman and Ophelia, the woman he loves, played by a man. Good grief.

Hamlet is a young man, son of a murdered king, nephew of the new king Claudius – who we learn not only assassinated Hamlet’s father but much too hastily married Hamlet’s mother. In order to ignite into action Hamlet’s conflicted emotions, the ghost of his father urges Hamlet to avenge his death. How, I asked myself, can a woman give expression to such a maelstrom of emotions that beleaguer the only son of a murdered king?

Thus disgruntled, I leaned back against the boards to watch Shakespearean drama from the groundlings’ point of view. (If you are willing to stand for three hours, London’s Globe Theatre offers £5 tickets for top-of-the-line professional entertainment.)

Once the play began, the next hurdle sent me sprawling: costumes. Some actors dressed in breath-taking Elizabethan garb, others sported their very own duds – Hamlet himself being one of these. I’m a period purist when it comes to costuming, so I resignedly slid further down the backboard I leaned against and became uncomfortably aware of the much too bright, much too hot sun overhead. (Since the Globe is an open roofed theatre, groundlings are subjected to any and all weather.)

The first half hour, though convincingly acted and fluidly blocked, did not captivate me. Too many of my drama sensitivities had been triggered and were misfiring, so in self-defence I concentrated more on the physical relief a periodic scudding cloud offered me than on Hamlet’s tortuous mental and emotional quandary.

Then something happened. The sheer energy of the performance set me squarely back on my feet. I became less aware of the sweat dripping down my face and back and shining on my forearms. My wet palms ceased to need incessant wiping on my skirt. I began to relate to Hamlet. He intrigued me; I wanted to figure him out, second-guess him. What would he do next? Just how tenuous was his grasp of reality? How destructive his grief?

The overall performance was bracing and fast-paced, clearly delivered, flawlessly timed, and dynamically played. Unprepared as I was, I got it. Kudos to William Shakespeare, the dramatist with his finger on our pulse, and to the energetic, expressive acting troupe.

Later as I read the entire programme where different actors speak about what they experienced while rehearsing Hamlet and As You Like It concurrently, some of this play’s stumbling blocks were explained. Most importantly, I picked up a new dimension in my approach to performing and watching a Shakespeare play.

First of all, you need to understand that actors in the Globe face an unusual challenge and the audience experiences an unusual theatre production. Because the stage is surrounded by audience on three sides – three levels of seating rise behind seven hundred standing spaces in the yard around the stage – any production in the Globe is intimately interactive.

Michelle Terry, the Globe’s Artistic Director who also plays Hamlet, passionately believes that the audience is another character in the play. Globe actors know that such an audience demands a powerfully convincing performance. Footloose groundlings lavish their approval or restless disapproval directly on the players, as well as visibly communicating it to everyone else in the theatre. There are no secrets in the Globe.

There are also no concealing curtains. The audience is as visible to the actors as actors are to the audience; everyone is exposed. Terry aptly says: “Where else can Hamlet say ‘now I am alone’ and see the whites of the eyes of the 1500 people that accompany him in that moment?” This transparency creates its own chemistry.

During their daily rehearsals, the Ensemble actors and their support team placed at the heart of their performance their relationships to one another, Shakespeare’s rock-solid word base and their shared interpretation of it, the approach of the original Globe performers to the script, and the dynamics of the actual Globe Theatre that Shakespeare wrote for and where they act. Unusually their rehearsals were open to other Globe actors and staff as well as to the public touring the theatre, thus adding vulnerability to their already rewarding and collectively creative rehearsals.

I felt strangely stirred and uplifted, which seemed an odd response to such an abysmal tragedy as Hamlet.

Notably this summer’s production touches lightly on Hamlet’s moral dilemmas, which is undoubtedly unnerving to the more initiated in the audience. In fact, at intermission two people sitting behind us – one of whom had taught Hamlet for years – offered us their £50 seats as they walked out, calling this performance “a travesty.” In a classroom I would certainly delve into the play’s troubling, puzzling developments, characters’ motives, and reflective soliloquies, yet the dynamics of this production repeatedly scuttle such an approach. Why is that?

We all know Shakespeare did not write a script to be analysed, rather he wrote a play to be performed. But we tend to forget that he wrote for a living, which necessitated immediate connection with his familiar London audience, many of whom were unpolished, unschooled, even rowdy. Shakespeare also knew his actors well and wrote specifically for them and his own Globe Theatre.

Perhaps by taking Shakespeare’s Hamlet more as compelling and creative interaction between actor and audience, actor and actor, playwright and audience and actor (as this summer’s Globe Ensemble do) and not as a deeply ponderous reflection on murder, revenge, incest, faith, love, mourning, and madness (as a literature buff or a teacher would), the players and the audience at the Globe move closer to Shakespeare’s original intent with Hamlet. Possibly we step nearer the original intent of all Shakespeare’s productions.

Remarkably, as I left the theatre, I was neither pensive nor perplexed as I would have been had I only read the script. I felt strangely stirred and uplifted, which seemed an odd response to such an abysmal tragedy as Hamlet where the main characters lie dead, strewn about the stage at the play’s end.

Yarit Dor, a member of the Globe Ensemble, articulately validates my unexpected response, describing it as a recognition of the “sense of human rawness, truth, and readiness at the heart of Shakespeare.” It is quite enough.

Note on the title: In his famous opening Chorus of Henry V, William Shakespeare refers to acting at the Globe Theatre as being “within this wooden ‘O.’” Comments

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Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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  • Thank you Ann for your review. As ever so well written and most engaging. Hope you took the seats offered to you. Love Sue.

    Sue Prochak