Hamlet’s appeal is inexhaustible – everyone can sympathize with the character who finds himself alone and without allies in the midst of an apparently hostile or at least unfriendly environment. No life is without responsibilities that must be undertaken alone and without anyone else to share the risk or the blame.
Hamlet is faced with a foe who holds all the cards and whose reach and power seem boundless. If the prince is talking to his girlfriend, the King might have an agent listening in, or might himself be hovering about unseen. His college friends might be allies, but they might also might be under the King’s influence, spies themselves. And on the other side is the ghost of his dead father, imperious, demanding vengeance. Hamlet is capable of working up marvelous empathy from an audience, especially since he is clearly on a level of intelligence that is more than a match for his adversaries. Danger with a hint of paranoia, impossible challenges and a witty, clever hero – the stuff of your favorite thriller.
And yet…there’s another completely different side to Hamlet – for so much has been written about the play (and how dare I?) that it can sustain completely opposing interpretations in just about every respect. Unlike the focus of sympathy detailed above, he can be the object of a more detached admiration – a humanist prince of the late renaissance. Montaigne as tragic hero, who journeys from superstitious, terrified obedience to a ghostly daddy figure to a realistic acceptance of the finality of death and a philosophical optimism that a rational providence is providing structure and meaning to human existence.
I like to think that George Rylands’ Marlowe Society production, with it’s intractable inscrutability, lack of overt theatricality and textual purity places it firmly in the second category. But that’s me, projecting, isn’t it? The Hamlet of Anthony White will provide no answers, further no (or every) point of view, settle no arguments. As a Gramophone review observed at the time of release, White is “alert”, “noble” and “youthful”, but stubbornly without a cohesive personal style or an approach to the questions most playgoers seek (is he mad or just faking?).
I want to be realistic about White’s Hamlet. His highly reactive, spontaneous approach to acting may be brilliantly intuitive, but it could very possibly exhibit waywardness and lack of technique. When I very young and had learned the basic rules of chess without any attempt at practicing strategy, a fellow student concluded a game with me by informing me that I was the type of opponent that was hard to beat, or at least time-consuming. Since I had no sense of strategy whatever, my moves could not be anticipated or countered. Hence our game was little more than a tedious matter of chasing my pieces about the board.
But if the Gramophone reviewer is right about the cast’s blank sheet approach to the play (and given the vagaries of director Rylands’ focus on interpretive clarity above theatrical effect this may very well be just), is it necessarily a bad thing? If you’ve heard and seen as many versions as I have, your experience of Hamlet tends to become a collection of favorite bits. Olivier’s version has the terrific opening and the brilliantly staged Mousetrap sequence. The BBC Shakespeare version’s Hamlet, Derek Jacobi, was thrilling in his indignation during the Recorder Scene. On audio, Michael Redgrave turned the Nunnery scene into an explosion of rage concluding with a horrified realization that he was no longer in control of his senses. Gielgud recorded the part numerous times but was always impressive in his moments of reflection, sweetly resigned in his Sparrow speech. In the abridged radio performance for the Theater Guild, he is also more active and engaged (perhaps the presence of a studio audience).
So it’s almost a matter of relief when White gives us no “moments”, no turns, spikes, climaxes. If I don’t remember any moments in particular, I do remember listening more carefully than usual. You can get lazy waiting for the drama to grab you and carry you along, and this time the text came to the front more strongly and profoundly. Patrick Wymark is an excellent Claudius, hitting every note with precision and power. In his opening scene, he is controlled and glib enough to seem invulnerable until the mention of revelry later in the evening. Wymark gives a little extra bit of anticipatory delight to his lines and with that, the first sign that Claudius may have one or more fatal weaknesses. His wry patience with Polonius is handled with perfection, even humor, the King beginning to settle into his new role. Then comes the Mousetrap scene and Claudius is completely shattered. His panicked exit is followed by a terror-ridden account of the My Offence is Rank speech, Wymark giving a beautiful account of a man who has succeeded so completely in an evil deed, that he is blown to pieces the first time he is brought face to face with his guilt. And thereafter, Wymark gives a desperate edge to the performance, the panic always there somewhere, controlling his thoughts and actions. This has to be one of the best performances of the part on audio, if not the best.
Margaretta Scott is a warm and surprisingly youthful Gertrude, and Miles Malleson wrings every bit of available comedy out of Polonius. William Devlin’s majestic, tortured Ghost is also worth the hearing.
Hamlet with Anthony White, Patrick Wymark, Margaretta Scott, Jeannette Sterke, Miles Malleson and William Devlin.