15 Jul Hamlet
Directed by Jonathan Miller
20 March – 03 May 2008
Production photos © 2008 Graham Burke
Francisco, Captain & Ambassador Alistair Wilkinson
Barnardo & 3rd Player Alan Coveney
Horatio Philip Buck
Marcellus & Priest Jonathan Nibbs
Ghost of Old Hamlet Andrew Hilton
Claudius Jay Villiers
Gertrude Francesca Ryan
Lady-in-Waiting Sarah Barratt
Hamlet Jamie Ballard
Polonius Roland Oliver
Laertes Oliver le Sueur
Osric Nicholas Gadd
Ophelia Annabel Scholey
Reynaldo & Sexton Paul Nicholson
Rosencrantz Morgan Philpott
Guildenstern Russell Bright
1st Player David Collins
2nd Player & Fortinbras Oliver Millingham
Director Jonathan Miller
Designer Chris Gylee
Costume Supervisor Rosalind Marshall
Lighting Designer Tim Streader
Sound Designer Elizabeth Purnell
Fight Director Kate Waters
Production Manager Tim Hughes
Stage Manager Jayne Byrom
Deputy Stage Manager Eleanor Dixon
Assistant Stage Manager Adam Moore
Costume Laundry Kim Winter
★★★★★ The Mail on Sunday Jamie is a prince among Hamlets.
Already this year, a handful of high-ranking Hamlets-to-be have hit the headlines: David Tennant for director Greg Doran and the Royal Shakespeare Company; Jude Law for Ken Branagh, who has firsthand experience in the role on stage and screen; and although there’s no date yet, Nick Hytner has announced that he wants Rory Kinnear to play the prince of Shakespearean roles.
Against such a starry backdrop, no one has noticed Jonathan Miller’s fourth stab at Hamlet in a tiny theatre in Bristol, a city shamefully starved of serious theatre since the closure of the Old Vic, with a near unknownn actor in the lead. The outstanding performance of Jamie Ballard should change all that. He’s an exceptional talent: the most moving, sexy and sensitive young Hamlet I’ve seen since Jonathan Pryce at the Royal Court in 1980.
Ballard’s Hamlet is the play’s dynamo, forever running his fingers through the stubble of his numberthree cut and over his chin, bravely attempting to smile through his tears. His laddishness, his edgy mercurial energy and the way he claps a lot, as if to snap himself out of his misery, reminds me of a younger Gordon Ramsay on The F Word.
We can see every thought reflected in his face just feet away: his sweetness, his forced jokiness and the fiercely intelligent method in his feigned madness.
In spite of his Elizabethan costume, this prince is every inch a 21st Century chap, grieving over his father’s death and disgusted at the spectacle of his mother snogging his smarmy new stepfather, Claudius (Jay Villiers). He is also somewhat spooked by the appearance of the ghost of his father, raving from the grave at twilight.
When he longs for his ‘too, too solid flesh’ to melt into a dew, it’s very much that youthful desire of wishing everything would go away, himself included.
The focus of Jonathan Miller’s admirably clear, minimalist account is the acting. There’s practically no scenery; just costumes in grey, gold and black, until Ophelia (a superbly harrowing Annabel Scholey) appears in her bloodstained nightie, dishevelled, distressed and horribly disturbing.
Shakespeare’s play has rarely felt so urgent, so devastating. Tennant and Law truly have their work cut out.Georgina Brown
Looking tetchy and impassioned at the stf season launch back in January, Jonathan Miller thundered about the need to keep theatre simple: to let the drama speak loud, unfettered by opulent sets, ponderous thespy diction or the various other evils of ‘stagey’ theatre. And this jabbing, quickfire ‘Hamlet’ shows us, lucidly and quite grippingly, what the old sage is on about. This is as unstagey an evening as you could hope for, and yet – or rather, as a result – it crackles with tension, fear, humour, madness and lust. Pace is a defining feature – scarcely has one scene finished than the actors are rushing on for the next, giving a constant sense of threat and urgency. Naturalism is another: lines are spoken for their meaning, rather than opportunities for theatrical grandstanding. Polonius (a jovial, pompous tour de force from Roland Oliver) delivers his farewell speech to his son Laertes like an overprotective parent sending his callow sprog off to university; Ophelia’s madness is brilliantly rendered, bipolar and lewd, by Annabel Scholey. Most happily, Jamie Ballard’s Hamlet captivates. With touches of Rik Mayall or Ewan McGregor’s sped-up Renton in ‘Trainspotting’, he’s a young man losing the battle with his own overactive mind, constantly riddling and game-playing everyone around him yet unable to win a moment’s mental solace for himself. Through him, Miller shows us that ‘Hamlet’ is a story about the mind – and whether it is our greatest treasure, or cruellest torturer. Tremendous. Steve Wright.
★★★★ The Sunday Times This is the best and most thrilling production of this great play I’ve seen in years. Jonathan Miller’s production is based on a rigorous respect for the text, a masterful command of the narrative and a profound understanding of character that is ruthlessly accurate, deeply moving and entirely unsentimental. Little has been cut, and the performance, nearly four hours long, grips your attention all the way. Thank God we have grown out of worshipping Hamlet, the self-flagellating intellectual. Jamie Ballard plays him as a strong young man almost crushed by grief, anger and despair; his meeting with the Ghost is a kind of release, because it gives him a purpose. Now he can speak with a dangerous freedom, mock his own self-doubt and allow himself moments of touching immaturity. It’s a fiery, fearless performance, not of your “sweet prince”, but of a man fighting for and against his fate. This is a true company performance. Every character has been thought through: observe how they listen and react to each other. The verse-speaking has a loving and intelligent precision, a true fusion of form and content. A master at work. John Peter
★★★★ The Guardian Almost uncut, costumed in Elizabethan dress, clearly spoken, and staged with three church pews and the minimum of fuss, Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet – his debut at the Tobacco Factory – follows very much in the tradition of Shakespeare at this address. There are plenty of familiar faces from the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (stf) ensemble on stage, too. Artistic director Andrew Hilton is on hand; he plays the ghost, a reprise of the role he took in Miller’s 1970 production at the Fortune Theatre. Any production of this play stands or falls by its Hamlet, and in Jamie Ballard, Miller has a Hamlet who is never dull; in fact, he is often mesmerising. He begins as a bit of a crybaby – wrapped up in grief for his father’s death, with a hankie always at the ready – but turns into a sardonic joker who greets even his own death with cheeky smile. “I’m dead, Horatio,” he exclaims with a grin, standing bolt upright before expiring in what sounds like a fit of the giggles. This is a memorable performance – and it’s certainly an idiosyncratic one. So quick-witted and mercurial is this Hamlet that you can well imagine him as a star pupil at the University of Wittenburg, making fellow students such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look like the complete dullards they are … Jay Villiers, such a good Benedick in Much Ado last season, is an excellent Claudius: a man genuinely in love with Gertrude and satisfied with his life until the players’ enactment forces him to confront his own guilt. He meets his death with a little shrug of resignation, as if he welcomes it. Indeed, his sense of relief is so palpable, his murder almost counts as suicide. There is good support, too, from Annabel Scholey, who goes mad far less prettily than most Ophelias. Her sexual repression from being constantly under the watchful eye of her father turns to sexual hysteria as she repeatedly jabs a doll in a suggestive and disturbing way. It is only Ophelia’s death that wipes the smile off Hamlet’s face. Lyn Gardner
★★★★ The Times Jonathan Miller has performed some strange surgery on the Bard in his time – I still have nightmares about the colonial-era Tempest in which Ariel was an aspiring African dictator flourishing a fly-whisk – but his in-the-round revival of Hamlet in the West Country’s most enterprising theatre is a model for any director and a treat for any playgoer. Miller trusts the text, cutting little but some of the stuff about Denmark’s fears of invasion, a subject that Shakespeare anyway treats as cursorily as Jay Villiers’s Claudius does when he offhandedly drops the Norwegian king’s reassuring message on to the floor. He ensures that every line has its due meaning and weight. He even sets his production in the Elizabethan era. And is the result academic, pedantic or dull? Quite the contrary. This Hamlet is grippingly alive from the moment when Philip Buck’s initially scornful Horatio and the royal guards wait in the silvery murk for the dead king’s ghost to an ending in which the exhausted Claudius compliantly takes the poisoned cup and drinks from it, as at some hellish communion service. And, not least at the moment when self-slaughter seems a tempting escape from life’s “fardels”, Jamie Ballard proves well able to bear the theatre’s ultimate fardel, the role of Hamlet. At first he’s slumped, head hanging down, on one of the old pews that furnish an otherwise bare stage. He’s still in deep grief at his father’s death and shock at his mother’s remarriage and, at times, can’t quite stem his tears. So the meeting with Andrew Hilton’s ghost – impressively majestic but so lacking in horror-stricken intensity that purgatory might be the Athenaeum – is in a way restorative. Now he can feel what he feels without guilt, shame or a sense of being (Claudius’s word) “unmanly”. Ballard’s one fault is to get shrill when he rages, making you feel that his fury is coming from the throat, not the belly. But he’s intelligent, incisive, sentient and humorous, using parody gestures and comic voices when he’s disorienting others with what’s here is a mocking and self-mocking pretence of madness. His scenes with Annabel Scholey’s Ophelia are especially strong: he burying his head in her skirts as he seeks comfort, she pushing away the man she loves because she’s being watched by Roland Oliver’s gleefully busybodying Polonius. Scholey’s hyper-obedient, ultra-repressed Ophelia more than prepares us for the scene in which, dressed in a stained shift, she madly pokes sticks into her dolls’ pudenda. Likewise Villiers, who starts out smiling, confident and supremely rational, becomes tense and angry and ends weary, beaten and suicidal, and always seems much in love with Francesca Ryan’s Gertrude. Each of these fine performers makes a journey that’s logical, carefully charted yet emotionally true – and, as such, characteristic of Miller’s production. Benedict Nightingale
The Observer At last there’s good news from Bristol, where the closure of the Old Vic has left the city theatrically deprived. Jonathan Miller’s production of Hamlet – his fourth – is robust, dynamic and bitingly clear: in the best tradition of the exemplary Tobacco Factory, it is intellectually high-vaulting and materially austere.
The bare stage is full of shadows and glimmers; everything is grey and black and gold, until Ophelia appears with smudges of blood on her nightdress. Her mad scene is one of the most convincing ever staged: it has no decorative daftness – the herbs she dispenses are twigs – but nor is it all grunts and grovels: Annabel Scholey paws Claudius, rages, bursts into laughter, shies away alarmed when her brother approaches. Around her, the royal family stand dumbstruck – for once looking less as if they’re giving her a breather so that she can deliver her big speech, than as if rooted by embarrassment and distress.
The homelife of our own dear Queen is – unexplicitly – evoked: watching deranged Ophelia, with her supportive brother and scary prospective in-laws, is to see the Lady Di of the 17th century; Laertes’s warning to his sister that her beau is not free to make a love-match rings out with new force. A neat bit of staging shows Hamlet and Laertes squaring up from the beginning; their terminal duel is galvanic.
This is a production full of reverberations: the Ghost, Hamlet’s dead dad, is played with impressive hauteur by Andrew Hilton, founder of the Tobacco Factory, who inhabited the same part more than 40 years ago. It is driven by an almost revolutionarily sane Hamlet. Jamie Ballard is flushed, disturbed, but clear-sighted: he debates like the philosophy student that he is; he’s clearly in love with Ophelia (that’s rare): he blubs like a man whose flesh – and whose substance – really is beginning to melt. Susannah Clapp
It is almost certain that Shakespeare was familiar with an earlier play called ‘Hamlet’. The text is now lost and the author unknown (some have suggested Thomas Kyd), but we know that in the 1590s it was in the repertoire of Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare may well have performed in it himself, together with Richard Burbage and Will Kemp, at the Newington Butts Theatre in June 1594. This was six or seven years before Shakespeare’s own Hamlet was written and produced. During Shakespeare’s lifetime an adaptation of this lost play, retitled Fratricide Punished, was performed in Germany by a group of English players. It contained no soliloquies and no graveyard scene. Ophelia throws herself from a mountain top, and Hamlet’s ‘delay’ is caused merely by the practical difficulty of assassinating a well-guarded monarch.
Central elements of the story go back to the twelfth century, in the Danish poet, Saxo Grammaticus’ account of the legendary Danish revenger, Amleth. Amleth’s uncle killed Amleth’s father (after the father had defeated the King of Norway in single combat) and then married his mother. In contrast to Shakepeare’s telling the murder is not a secret, but to disguise his planned vengeance young Amleth, who acts decisively throughout, feigns madness. While talking to his mother in her chamber, he is spied on by one of the king’s councillors. Amleth kills him and dismembers the body. He is sent to England to be executed, in the company of two servants, but he discovers their instructions and substitutes their names for his own. He returns to Denmark and avenges his father’s death by killing his uncle. Amleth survives and becomes king.
In the sixteenth century Saxo’s story was retold in French by Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques first published in 1570. We don’t know if Shakespeare read Saxo, but he was certainly familiar with Belleforest, who introduced a few changes to the story. In particular, he tells that Hamlet’s mother had been having an affair with her brother-in-law before the murder of her husband but that, later, she repents her actions and conspires with Hamlet in his successful effort to kill his uncle and gain the throne. Features of Shakespeare’s play such as the Ghost, Fortinbras, the play-within-a-play and Hamlet’s own death originated either with Shakespeare himself or with the author of the lost Elizabethan Hamlet.
The first of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, Hamlet seems to have been an immediate success. The writer and critic, Gabriel Harvey, remarked: “The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece, and his Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them to please the wiser sort.” After its première in 1601 or 1602, in which Richard Burbage played the title role, it continued to be performed regularly in the London playhouses, at Court and at Oxford and Cambridge, until the theatres were closed in 1642 on the outbreak of the Civil War.
When the theatres reopened after the Restoration it was not long before the play was revived. Of a performance in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1661 John Downes wrote: “Hamlet being Perform’d by Mr Betterton, Sir William Davenant (having seen Mr Taylor of the Black-Fryars Company Act it, who being Instructed by the Author Mr Shaksepeur) taught Mr Betterton in every Particle of it; which by his exact Performance of it, gained him Esteem and Reputation, superlative to all other Plays.”
The eighteenth century, whilst recognising the play’s poetic beauties, regarded it as a rather barbaric melodrama in need of purification. David Garrick omitted the graveyard and fencing scenes and spared Gertrude. “I had sworn,” he declared in 1776, “I would not leave the stage till I had rescued that noble play from all the rubbish of the fifth act.”
Nineteenth century productions were comparably modified and cut until in 1874 Henry Irving presented Shakespeare’s complete play at the Lyceum Theatre.
Editing continues to this day, if only to reduce the play’s extraordinary length – and this production is no exception. Even the 1623 Folio edition which omits substantial sections of the 2nd Quarto text, is Shakespeare’s longest play. Unbroken, the full 2nd Quarto plays for four hours or more.
An Incestuous Marriage
“that incestuous, that adulterate beast” Hamlet’s father’s ghost, speaking of his brother, Claudius
According to the doctrine of ‘carnal contagion’, the marriage between Claudius and Gertrude is incestuous, and would have been immediately recognised as such by Shakepeare’s audience. By his brother’s marriage to Gertrude, Claudius had become ‘kin’ to her in the fleshly as well as the legal sense.
“None of you shall approach to any that is near kin to him, to uncover their nakedness … Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness … And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness: they shall be childless.” Leviticus 18
This doctrine, which had some legal force in England until only a century ago, had played an important part in the English Reformation. Henry Vlll had obtained a special dispensation from the Pope to marry his brother Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon – largely on the assertion that Arthur and Catherine’s marriage had never been consummated and that when she married Henry she was still a virgin.
But Henry changed tack when he wished to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. His ministers claimed that the marriage to Catherine had, after all, been incestuous, and therefore illegitimate and cursed – not with the complete infertility predicted in Leviticus, but with the crucial failure to produce a male heir. Its annulment was therefore imperative to the continuance of the Tudor line.
The Pope would not bend again. Henry declared himself the head of the Church in England, broke from the Papacy and married Anne. However, the issue of incest and legitimacy did not end there. Henry’s marriage to Anne was widely regarded as adulterous, and their child – the future Elizabeth l – therefore a bastard. This charge was compounded by Henry himself when in 1536 Catherine of Aragon died and Anne (who had suffered a series of miscarriages) miscarried a son. With Catherine dead he was free to allow his marriage to her to be seen as a true one and declare the marriage to Anne illegitimate, thus freeing him to marry afresh. He accused Anne of adultery (with her own brother) and treason and obtained an Act of Parliament declaring the 3 year-old Elizabeth a bastard, a charge that would haunt her throughout her life. Anne, of course, was beheaded.
The last of the British laws prohibiting men from marrying their brother’s wives was repealed by parliament in 1907.
An Elective Monarchy
“… popped in between the election and my hopes …” Hamlet, speaking of his uncle’s election as king
The Danish Monarchy, which can be traced back to Gorm the Old (buried 958) and his son Harald I Bluetooth, was theoretically – as Shakespeare correctly records in the play – an elective one, though in practice it was in a very restricted sense. It was generally limited to the royal house, and the crown was commonly, though not invariably, passed from father to eldest son. But in return, the king had to sign a coronation charter, which regulated the balance of power between himself and his people.
This system existed until 1660/61, when Frederik III introduced a hereditary, absolutist monarchy for Denmark and Norway, based on the principle of male primogeniture.
The democratic Constitution of 5 June 1849 changed the monarchy’s status from absolute to constitutional. Then the Act of Succession of 27 March 1953 introduced the possibility of female succession, which enabled the current Queen, Margrethe ll, to succeed to the throne.