To Thine Own Self Be True: Bristol Old Vic’s Hamlet

Gothic, pacey, modern and really bringing out the brilliant language, Billy Howle brings out the madness and the pain of the student prince of Denmark.

This Hamlet is beset by grief and thoroughly haunted by the hooded figure of his dead father, urging him into revenge against his stepfather and King. It’s so tense that we don’t know if we are seeing a mentally disintegrating Prince or whether he is truly being haunted. He swings wildly to cruelty and deceit, full of furing and anger, and yet under it all, hidden grief.

At two and a half hours the lines are fast spoken — I wondered how they were going to fit everything in. Somehow though, although the pace is fast, the language is allowed to breathe — we really get the lines (which is wonderful because there are so many good ones!) Much is conveyed through cassette tapes, which is a fun anachronistic touch! showing us how Hamlet is in real anguish and struggle in dealing with what has happened). Is he right to be suspicious though?

Finbar Lynch as Claudius is a real villain from the beginning; is Niamh Cusack’s Gertrude in on the plot or not? She is happy, Claudius appears utterly duplicitous — even struggling to bend his knees to pray. Hamlet appears a morose teen. The play redeems Polonius, making him an administrative bore fond of long and tedious speeches, always checking his pager and schedules, yet giving him a joke and yet a kindly father. His sad hidden, mistaken death becomes all the more tragic — we don’t know what Hamlet has done with his body, after he lies on stage in deathly horror for ages. It’s a sad end — literally in the wrong place at the wrong time. Especially after he’s endured Hamlet throwing his book at him.

Redeemed too is Ophelia (Mirren Mack) — we never get a sense of their relationship, too much cut — because Hamlet goes straight into madness and revenge and she is caught up in all — being rejected, humiliated, driven into mental collapse by the man she loves killing her own father. Her funeral scene is a tragic one, conducted as it is by a group coming on in silence, following on from Hamlet’s big Yorrick ‘To be or not to be’ speech. There is some nice pushback at the beginning against her brother’s chidings and in rebuffing Gertrude, her father and Hamlet’s comments when they all get too much (and too personal) and in her reactions to Hamlet’s increasingly threatening behaviour. Through the use of video, we see something of her terrible death too; but it is her mental disintegration which is distressing and as an audience we deeply feel the tragedy and injustice done to Othelia.

Gertrude being accused by Hamlet is genuinely distressing because she seems to need to fight him off and can’t. He won’t stop coming at her until the ghost of his father tells Hamlet to stop — she is frustrated then terrified by his actions. But Gertrude begins to get more than an inkling of how despicable Claudius is and takes that self-knowledge into the duel between Laertes and Hamlet, leading to her sacrificial end.

Horatio in this version is a bewildered friend, increasingly baffled and beset by their friend’s spiral downwards. The line about the English being mad (implied that Hamlet will fit in perfectly) always makes me laugh. Fortinbras coming ever closer and walking into a massacre is cut; instead, we get Horatio trying to join Hamlet in death yet being admonished to stay alive to tell the dreadful story.

Best of all, the grave digger is not annoying! Firdous Bamji brings this filler before the big speech to life and makes the scene makes sense. It’s a funny bit of comedy and reflection before Othelia’s funeral and everything kicks off. Howle’s ‘to be or not to be speech’ was excellent, especially his loss of his friend Yorrick. He did throw away lines at times which could have been given more poignancy, but overall, he made the lines fly and gave them wonderful life.

Sinisterly, Hamlet would often appear masked, lurking menacingly up to and during the play scene, which shocks his mother, fails to distract Polonius from his to do list) and finally becomes completely unloosed, not acting his real self to purpose his reveal of his new ‘father’ as the murderer of the old one.

Somehow, inspite of the pace, they manage to fit in the body count! Laertes fights Hamlet, having been comforted and supported by Polonius. Gertrude drinks knowingly to Hamlet saving her son from her new husband’s poison. Laertes confesses that he’d used a poisoned sword blade, so they are both done for — leading Hamlet to viciously murder his stepfather. An outworking of his murderous visions in the first half which ends with Hamlet appearing to shoot Claudius at prayer. In the second half we realise this was just a vision and get the Shakespear envisaged scene, where Hamlet finds Claudius at prayer (here forcing himself to pray with humility) and can’t bring himself to do it. (Despite the ghost of his father urging him on).

Adding the Gothic moments, here the ghost brings all the sleepers ‘awake’ at the end (rather than them bouncing awake again) and sends them off; we see Hamlet thinking of his family before descending down steps…into the grave...

@Images are from the livestream of Bristol Old Vic’s production of Hamlet and used purely for illustration



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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....