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Hamlet and ‘The Smiths’? A review of the Globe’s winter production of Hamlet

by Beatrix Stark A new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is being performed for the first time in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of the Globe’s Winter 2021/2022 performance series. A story of corruption, deception, and madness, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most haunting plays. Set in the remote, garish Royal Court of Elsinore in […]

by Beatrix Stark

A new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is being performed for the first time in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of the Globe’s Winter 2021/2022 performance series.

A story of corruption, deception, and madness, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most haunting plays. Set in the remote, garish Royal Court of Elsinore in Denmark, the play follows Prince Hamlet’s descent into chaos when he is visited by the ghost of his father who reveals a shocking family betrayal, leading Hamlet to seek revenge.

Even if you are unfamiliar with the plot of Hamlet, you will have almost certainly encountered it before, whether that be through the iconic line ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, the tragic character of Ophelia immortalised by the Pre–Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, or the famous skull symbolising humanity’s inevitable mortality. Shakespeare’s work has infiltrated so many aspects of our culture and become so embedded in our collective memory that it is easy to forget that how many of our contemporary references and artistic creations allude to Shakespeare’s original verse.

Prior to seeing Hamlet, I had never been to a performance at the indoor Globe. I was excited to experience the candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker playhouse for the first time. Inspired by the Blackfriars Playhouse frequented by Shakespeare’s company in 1609 the Playhouse is entirely lit by beeswax candles, suspended from candelabra which hang from the theatre’s painted ceiling.

Lighting is integral to the success of this production of Hamlet, which relies on the assembled audience becoming invested in the ghosts, shadows, and deception which torment the characters on stage.

From the outset, the production disorientated audience members by extinguishing all the lights, plunging the Playhouse into pitch darkness, and catapulting the audience into the depraved court of Elsinore. Throughout the play the suspended candelabra descended and ascended from the ceiling down to the stage, where the candles were snuffed out and relit by the characters on stage; the continual process of lighting and extinguishing candles acts as a metaphor for Hamlet’s own struggle between life and death.

Hamlet is certainly a play which is enhanced by being performed in the indoor environment, in the cold winter months. A particularly haunting moment occurred when Hamlet went in search of his father’s ghost, running out into the darkness off stage guided by the light of a swaying lantern. It was easy to believe that Hamlet had just run out into a dark, stormy night on the cliffs of Elsinore, with a single flickering flame to guide his way.

I found George Fouracres’ performance as Hamlet particularly engaging. His distinctive Black Country accent distinguished him from the rest of the cast and subverted the traditional transmission of Shakespeare’s work. It was refreshing that Fouracres did not dwell on the play’s most famous lines, ‘to be or not to be, that is the question’ or ‘To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream’.  By quickly passing over these moments, Fouracres invited the viewer to focus on the play itself, as opposed to being distracted by specific, albeit iconic, lines.

Although the overall atmosphere was evocative and engaging, certain elements of the production detracted from the experience.  I was conscious when attending the Globe production of Romeo and Juliet in the summer of 2021 that the current directors are looking to ‘modernise’ the plays by overlaying some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful soliloquies with contemporary music (or in the case of Romeo and Juliet, axing the Capulet’s ball and replacing it with a bizarre moment of ensemble karaoke).

Unfortunately, this format was used in parts of Hamlet, where contemporary music seemed to dominate Ophelia’s performance. The opening lines of “I Know It’s Over” by The Smiths are sung by Ophelia consistently during the three acts, overtly labouring the tragic nature of her character. The music became a real distraction in the final scene, when Hamlet’s last lines are smothered by the rest of the ensemble humming the tune in the background.

The immersive atmosphere of the Sam Wanamaker theatre transports the audience to the tumultuous court of Elsinore, and evokes something deeply disturbing which lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. but, the musical aspect of the production was unnecessary, and instead of leaving the theatre with the words of Hamlet impressed in my mind, I found the words of Morrisey, “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head…” echoing in my ears.

Hamlet is being performed at the San Wanamaker Playhouse, London until the 9th of April 2022.

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