I have loved Hamlet for a long time. Correction. I have loved a passage from Hamlet for a long time. Though I had no idea it was Hamlet. Because I thought it was a song. From the Hair soundtrack. Boy oh boy did I love that soundtrack. I discovered it in my parents collection when I was about 10. I played it constantly. I knew all the words to all the songs, especially that one that is just a list of naughty things. I could probably sing the album today. It is skill I share with my best friend from university, Abby. She too spent hours of childhood entranced by Hair. Fast forward many decades. Imagine my surprise when I heard “what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason…” spoken, not sung, by Hamlet. Well no wonder it is a song I remember, it is lyrical, pure poetry. Words that stick on your soul. Hamlet itself is a little harder to love.
I know it is one of Shakespeare’s greats, if not his greatest. It is supposedly the most performed play in the world. Apparently Hamlets are taking place all over all the time. But it isn’t an easy play. The characters aren’t all that likeable. Their motives aren’t always clear. It is confusing at best. And the end is a proper bloodbath. I have seen 5 productions of Hamlet, all in London. By the standards of my British friends, this is a paltry number of shows. But remember, I wasn’t educated in all things Shakespeare like they were, like my children are. I am a newcomer to the Shakespeare cult. Enthusiastic, certainly, but uneducated.
The first Hamlet I saw was dreadful. Starring the usually incredible Michael Sheen, it was set in a pyschiatrict hospital, which immediately undercut Hamlet’s own madness as everyone was mad. Loudly, ragingly, incoherently mad. And poor Ophelia was reduced to a shrieking wreck throwing pills around for what seemed like forever. Relentless misery. I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. By the end, I think there were only 10 of us left in the audience. We had stayed only because my friend was so heavily pregnant she felt too tired to move. At one point we both stared hopefully off to the side of the stage, wishing a crisp packet or sweet wrapper to roll by and distract us from the main action. I didn’t enjoy it, but I wasn’t giving up.
A few years later the Globe announced their Hamlet world tour. Their plan to take a production of Hamlet all round the world and in 2 years try, as best as geo-political situations would allow, to perform in every country in the world. My daughter and I attended the first show, at Middle Temple. A simple stage, a clothes line and a few hats, the production was funny and rich and reverant in its understanding that the words are what matter. This one I enjoyed. A lot. The production really did tour the world, acting in theatres, villages squares, studio spaces, outdoor stadiums, and a tent in a refugee camp. Two years on, the same daughter and I enjoyed the penultimate performance, back at the Globe. With the same cast now fully engrossed in their roles. I admired what I saw, but still found the play difficult.
Then came the famous Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet. Of course I went. My friend Mini managed incredible tickets in about the 3rd row. It was lavish. Magnificent. A triumph. Yet, I still cringed when Ophelia set about shrieking in the usual way, a way I don’t find at all convincing for what she is supposedly enduring. Hamlet the man stayed a mystery, why does he do what he does and why? Is he mad? Is he not? Does he mean what he is saying? Is there some essential sub-text I am missing? And what are all these other peole doing? But of course I enjoyed it. I went with the plot and let the gorgeous words flow over me. Flow over, but not through.
Friday night. Andrew Scott’s Hamlet. Suddenly, like a bolt out of the sky the words didn’t wash by, they penetrated. Deeply. I was transfixed. For almost 4 hours. This production, directed by Robert Icke, moved after spectacular reviews from the Almedia to the West End is sleek and modern, but without gimmick. The words still matter. In fact they matter even more, because I got them. Andrew Scott’s interpretation is so good he effortlessly bridges the gap between Shakespearen language and modern sensibilities. No longer was he some maybe mad man-child making lots of speeches, he became a fully formed human whose decisions, while not always good, made sense, and his self-expression personal, timely, vivid. It was as though he had written the words for himself, by himself. In fact, all the characters made sense, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And Ophelia didn’t shriek. Her grief was tangible. And understandable. And quietly heartbreaking. My brain was on fire. My soul filled. My eyes wet. Now I get it, why it is that this play written more than 400 years ago still resonants. Why it is the most performed play in the world. It captures so much of the human condition. That vengeful bloodbath at the end? Sadly, that is pretty accurate as well. Now, I too am a Hamlet groupie. Thank you London. It took a while, but you have given me yet something else to love.