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Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’

I know that many – perhaps even most – people believe that the truly great plays demonstrate their greatness, in part, by proving themselves to be infinitely open to interpretation and presentation.

Along side this belief there is also the much-repeated claim made by actors (genuinely meant, I am sure) that they feel that they never did – never COULD – get totally to grips with the character of Lear, Hedda, Iago – whomever.

These two things taken together make it almost blasphemous to talk about a definitive performance in one of those roles (let alone the more complex and wide-ranging idea of a “definitive production”)…and yet…

Of course these things are matter of taste, and they are locked in time (even if one were to admit its possibility, a definitive “Othello” of the 1950s is going to be very different to one of this decade – not least because of the natural skin tone of the actor playing the eponymous hero), but that said, I think I have seen quite a few “definitive” productions of the great plays (and thus with “definitive” performances at their heart) – and I think (without modesty) that I have seen enough and no enough to be able to make that judgement. I’m thinking of “the classics” here – rather than modern plays where the production has been mind-blowing (and hard to imagine an improvement being made: such as Denise Gough in “People, Places and Things” or Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem”).

These are not in date order, and I don’t know how they’d hold up today: but I would guess “pretty well”…

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Hedda Gabler” – still the best night (nine nights, in fact) that I have ever spent in a theatre.

Antony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s “Antony and Cleopatra”

Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s “King Lear”

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s “Macbeth”

Adrian Lester in Nicholas Hytner’s “Othello”

Mark Strong in Ivo van Hove’s “A View From the Bridge”

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Medea”

Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s “Hamlet”

As I write this, “Hamlet” is still on at The Gielgud Theatre in London. I saw it for the first time in the Almeida, and then the second time with my children at The Gielgud – and I’ve got tickets for two more nights before it closes in a month’s time. It is absolutely extraordinary.

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet makes the play – and the character – feel newly minted (which I would have never thought possible). He is conversational, clear and accessible, never once striking a false note; and managing to find wit, humour and passion in even the most well-trod of passages. There isn’t one cliche, there isn’t one moment that feels manufactured: this is the first time that I have seen the leaps in emotion executed with such clarity and conviction – it really is a monumental performance. This Hamlet is so grief-stricken because he is so passionate: you feel that he has one layer of skin less than anyone else – he is so vulnerable to what goes on around him, to the endless betrayals that he faces and the lies that he is told that his death felt like a release that he was yearning for. The “fall of a sparrow” section had me in pieces: this was someone looking forward to death as a way out of a tormented life. Mind-blowing.

The direction is a masterpiece of clarity and creativity. I’ve never seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father presented in so chilling and brilliant a way. I’ve never seen Elsinore feel so watched and watchful (even in other productions when that was clearly a core part of the interpretation: Nicholas Hytner’s great production with Rory Kinnear in the lead was awash with FBI types with earpieces and walkie-talkies – but somehow I became immune to it: here, the touch is far lighter and far more significant). I have never seen such a strong and affecting Ophelia as Jessica Brown Findlay, whose mad scenes were handled with such control and pathos that there wasn’t a single embarrassed titter throughout (and if that doesn’t sound like the highest praise imaginable, I assure you that it is): this was the first time that I thought Hamlet and Ophelia really, really loved each other. The final scene (well cut and sharply staged) ends in a coup-de-theatre that delivers a punch to the heart.

It is absolutely once in a lifetime, dust-free, fuss-free stuff: and it blew me (and my children) away. If you can get to see it, I would urge you to see it. If you only go to the theatre once a year, make it this. It is so, so good and I know that I will never forget it.

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Look: I’m not going to start making rash claims about regular updates. I may, or may not, start doing this again “properly”: but what I CAN commit to is a swift and utterly non-comprehensive update on some of the things that have happened in my life since my last post, which was a LONG time ago.

  1. All my children continue to be superb. I shall say nothing more about them: they are the centre of my world, but that does not make for diverting updates.
  2. My workplace has moved from the wildly convenient Chelsea to the hideously inconvenient Shoreditch. I am the only person in the world unconvinced by East London: but there it is.
  3. I have been considered for redundancy twice in the last six months. On neither occasion did the redundancy transpire, but it is an utter hurricane of piss when it’s going on.
  4. Old Friend at Work DID get made redundant. This has affected my enjoyment of being at work negatively by approximately 86%. She is far happier and strolled into another job almost the second that she left here:s o there is that – were I less self-involved I would see this as an unqualified good news story.
  5. I have gone out with: two actresses (one famous – so famous that I had to sign a form saying that I wouldn’t post about her on social media, which was weird – and one not famous, but absolutely stone cold mad); a journalist (who decided she wanted a baby – and as I have done all the baby-making I want to do, we parted ways very amicably); a teacher and a fellow advertising professional.
  6. I have bought a new rug, largely on the basis of Old Friend at Work’s frank assessment of the decision, which was: “If you don’t buy it, you’re a cunt”.
  7. Seen a lot of excellent theatre, much of it with the children. I took Eldest Son to see the almost-impossible-to-get-a-ticket to Benedict Cumberbatch “Hamlet”; and (whilst he professed to find it excellent, and I think really did enjoy seeing it); when I suggested, earlier this year – that all four of us might go to see fellow “Sherlock” alumnus Andrew Scott in “Hamlet”, I got the earnest reply “I think I’m probably OK for “Hamlet” for about twenty years or so.”. We’re all going in July. I’ve already seen it once, and it was phenomenal – better than Cumberbatch, in my opinion (but I think a lot of that was down to the director, Robert Icke, whose work I admire very much).
  8. Had a number of people I work with leave and be replaced. This has not been painless, as those that I lost (not that they died, it just felt like that) were quite a bit jauntier than their successors. The current batch seem not to have the same quality of being a bit odd – which I think is a pre-requisite for being a good Planner. One of them has a first name that I find so objectionable that I have had to give him a new one, which he has accepted without a murmur of complaint.
  9. Various bits of fuckery from the Ex-Wife, which have served – as ever – to remind how very fortunate I am not to be married to the adulterous old witch any longer.
  10. Been introduced to – and liked – the following:-
    1. Fever Tree Angostura Bitters Tonic Water.
    2. Beetroot stems used as a salad “leaf”.
    3. Pistachios in previously unimagined quantity and manifestations.
    4. Freeze-dried raspberries.
    5. Sanetra Sourdough from Gail’s.
    6. Baguette from Le Pain Quotidien.
    7. Sartorial aftershave from Penhaligon’s
    8. A Karcher pressure washer, which I ache to use, but have now run out of appropriate surfaces.
    9. The novels of Elizabeth Strout.
    10. Veep
  11. Had a sabbatical, during which I went on a watercolour painting course and wrote six episodes of a TV sitcom, which is brilliant in parts and turgid beyond belief in others.
  12. Ten things about which I have become certain:-
    1. Sean Penn is an actor who absolutely deserves to be talked of alongside DeNiro and Brando (and some way ahead of Pacino).
    2. Flawed as he undoubtedly was and is (and aren’t we all?) Tony Blair is the only politician whom I can imagine marshaling a course out of this mess: everyone else reminds me of a sixth form debating society, or a university first year meeting of the Socialist Workers’ Party.
    3. I can’t be fucked with WhatsApp.
    4. Office politics are a waste of time, and people who indulge in them are – without exception – wankers.
    5. Funny people are nearly always clever.
    6. Cooking from scratch relaxes me and tastes immeasurably better than anything I can buy – apart from bread, at which I have no talent.
    7. Olivia Colman.
    8. People are nicer in the North of England, but London is too brilliant to leave.
    9. No man who cycles to work needs to wear Lycra to do it. Ever.
    10. Brexit is a catastrophic decision.
  13. Ten things about which I remain unconvinced:-
    1. Cross-gender casting. I’ve seen it work (Fiona Shaw as Richard II, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia) and I’ve see it fail (Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, Kathryn Hunter as King Lear, Harriet Walter in the last two years’ worth of experiments) – but this assumption that it makes no difference just isn’t true: there needs to be a justification that makes sense.
    2. Quinoa.
    3. A Gin and Tonic that costs £18.
    4. Jeremy Corbyn as the saviour of the Left.
    5. Cold-press coffee.
    6. The slew of TV programmes where “a cohesive plot” is seen as a bourgeois, reactionary indulgence: I don’t mean that everything should be linear and require no investment in terms of time or interpretation, but there have been a few things on TV recently (“Marcella”, “Missing”) where the contortions of the plot appear to have left the programme makers themselves absolutely lost.
    7. The following descriptors in restaurants: “foraged”, “heritage”, “spume”.
    8. Millennials.
    9. iCloud security.
    10. Wales.

I’m sure you will agree with me when I write: “That’s quite enough of that”.

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Father in Law joined us last night in a low-key, non-Champagne reserves-draining party for New Year. Wife and I were talking about the famed event, and established that between us with a combined age of 70+, we’ve had about five good New Year’s Eves: and so this one was a very low key affair – a buffet, some MIGHTY Chateauneuf du Pape that “the children” had bought me for Christmas, and some goddawful telly.

Actually, the telly wasn’t goddawful at all, or at least, it wasn’t to begin with. We watched the incredibly funny, incredibly well-performed “Meet the Fockers”, with Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman being particularly outstanding.

It was only when we got towards the witching hour that the quality nose-dived. Jools Holland’s “Hootenany” was a horrifying spectacle: it was like watching “Supermarket Sweep” in an ASDA stocked with available celebrities (and some of them – Annie Lennox, The Ting Tings, Dizzee Rascal – WERE celebrities; some (including the excruciatingly unfunny Al Murray, who did nothing but repeat “Hootenany” in a variety of equally unamusing inflections and voices a good twenty times, whenever asked a question) resolutely were not), between whom the hideously ingratiating Holland skittered asking inane questions, sewing it all into a threadbare and unconvincing patchwork quilt of chat and performances. The alternative was Elton John, live from the O2 arena.

Now, I don’t like the toupee’d, gap-toothed little dumpling any more than the next sane individual – but we did like the guests he had on (Alexandra Burke and Will Young) – and Wife had a semi-professional interest in watching the concert, that had been designed by David LaChapelle. Oh – and we had watched (from between our fingers) about twenty minutes of the Shitenanny, so we were ready for a change.

However, from the minute that he strode onto the stage, dressed (very convincingly) as Tweedledum, we knew it wasn’t for us. And so, we did the unthinkable: we talked to each other – and it was at this point that it was revealed beyond any shadow of a doubt that Father-in-Law is a Time Lord. My evidence is simple: there is no other explanation for the amount of stuff that he manages to read and do, UNLESS he can travel through time and space. This is a man who (although admittedly twice my age) seems to have read ten times as much as me, and does five times as much. This is a man who, on seeing a production of “Hamlet” with me, compared it not just to the ones that we had seen together (some of which I had forgotten completely), but to those that he had seen in his sixty plus years of theatre-going: ending with the baffling pronouncement “I CANNOT remember who played Osric in Gielgud’s production…. Oh, my memory is so terrible.” (this on the back of his having been able to enumerate every member of the cast, down to the Gravedigger, and (quite often) furnishing me with details of how the Spear Carriers’ careers later went stellar.

I’ve often remarked to Wife that if I was ever brought in for Police questioning, I would be absolutely buggered (not literally – although one does hear all sorts of things), because I could never a question such as “What were you doing Tuesday last?” with any degree of confidence – so you can imagine how this display of “Marvello the Memory Man” makes me feel… AND he gets to go in the TARDIS.

Anyway, Happy 2009 to all of you – I hope it is better than 2008 has been and brings you all the happiness and love you hope for.

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David Tennant’s “Hamlet” opened last night to what appears to be pretty universally good notices. They’re not in the league that was accorded (to my mind, rightly) Simon Russell Beale (which won the plaudit from Benedict Nightingale in “The Times” of being “The best Hamlet in living memory”), nor to Ben Whishaw (who was good – but really, as Me As A Protestant can attest, the idea of casting Hamlet as young and meaning every word he says isn’t THAT startling, is it?), but very good – and making the fair point that before he won such fame as he now enjoys as The Man in the Tardis, who was previously at the RSC in the lead role in That Fairly Pedestrian “Romeo and Juliet” – so it’s more a return to the medium from whence he came than “Telly Star Tries The Bard”.

But I was reminded of Hamlet’s tart reply to Polonius’ enquiry over what he’s reading, not just by this timely accident of fate, but by a conversation I had recently with Northern Planner With Hosiery Compulsion.

She’s just done a great bit of work for a client, and we (as we Planners do) were talking about it: testing it out, seeing if it was robust, the whole Plannerly wank. And it tested, and it was, and we did. She’d hit on a very evocative, very apt property for the brand to own, and she’d even had the (hitherto unimaginable) comprehension AND THEN APPROVAL of Famously Overpaid Creative Director.

It was when Parody of 80s Account Handling Account Handler started to weigh in that she started to get the fear – not the feeling that she’d been found out, but the feeling that she was about to be bound up in a semantic exercise which gives the impression of engaging with the issue, but is in fact (in my experience) the stupid person’s preferred means of appearing clever while failing to engage in the issue.

It is one of my most abiding frustrations that this cult of “What do we mean by yellow?” is given any credence at all in advertising and marketing circles at all. Rather than saying: “Yellow, you fat twat – you know, the colour that isn’t blue, red or green”, there are too many people who’ll nod along and agree that perhaps, yes, we ought to spend a bit more time (and certainly “do some charts on”) explaining what yellow is.

Surely, the power of what we do (work to exploit the power of brands – and that’s it) is based on being expansive, suggestive, evocative and analogous? 

What would have happened if the “I think we need some charts on…” crew had got hold of “Think Different”, “Just Do It”, “Every Little Helps”, “Where Do You Want To Go Today?”, “Dirt is Good”, “The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange” or any other great idea?

I’ll tell you what: “Think Different to IBM Do About What PCs Are For”, “Just Start Doing Some Exercise”, “Every Little Thing, Such As Certain Facilities, Store Layout, Customer Satisfaction, Pricing Policy and Range Helps You Enjoy Buying Your Groceries More At Tesco”, “What URL Address Do You Want To Be Connected To Today – We Can Do That”, “It’s Vital That Children Can Play Creatively – Which May Mean They Get Dirty – As That’s How They Develop, So Dirt’s A Sign of Childhood Development, and Anyway – We Can Clean Dirt” – and finally “The Future Is Bright, The Future Is Bright Like The Orange That We Use In Our Logo, and Have As Our Name – Sort of Cheerful, Without The Buddhist Robes Angle…”

Of course, I am exaggerating to make a point – and clumsily at that. But why are we so afraid of suggestiveness, when it is the very essence of what we do? We hope to unlock with allusion, metaphor and suggestion a world where a brand can be far more than the products that it makes: and it’s the bedrock of a Planner’s skills to find something that is right, evocative and ownable. It is NOT our job to substitute for either a dictionary or a thesaurus.

So here’s a plea to any fellow Planners out there: next time you’re asked “What KIND of excitement do you mean?” by someone who sits back with the smug expression of one who is thinking “My work here is done” – PLEASE fix them with a Basilisk stare and reply “Exciting Excitement” and leave it there.

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Monday, 2nd April 2007

I’m concerned.

Not over-concerned, but worried that I may have been reading too many books on Archetypes and Classical Mythology, and not enough The Sun, because, as I read about a forthcoming production of a Chekhov play (can’t honestly remember which one…) in the ‘paper, which included the airy “In Russian”, my immediate response wasn’t “Well, that’s bollocksed that up, then”. 

More alarmingly, I thought idly “I wonder when it’s on.”

This is doubly stupid, not only because while I admire him (of course I do, I’m not an IMBECILE), I am not a Chekhov Nut, but because of The Incident of Hamlet in Romanian.

To explain: some 15 years ago (when I was reasonably young, but not so young as to totally excuse this story – eg: 4) I went to London’s National Theatre to “enjoy” an uncut performance of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. IN ROMANIAN.

I can’t remember the thought process that saw me share a fairly large auditorium with c. 100 people (a sixth of capacity, I would guess). I DO remember the wonderful comment made in the interval by a Surrey Lady in her 50’s: “I do so enjoy theatre by oppressed nations” (was that someone struggling to think of someone to say to her host, having been baffled and bored by the first half, or was that Thatcher-level contempt and inhumanity slipping out before the first G&T, I wonder?). What I also remember was the fact that the eponymous Prince was referred to throughout by his fellow Elsinore-dwellers as “Omlett” (the only comic high point) and the tearful, standing ovation given at the end by an audience who had understood more than I had done, most of them being (as you’d expect) Romanian.

Even as I type, I remember that four hours of this (which I sat through alone, none of my usual theatre companions as keen to see this as I might have hoped) was not enough to dissuade me from the “Language Barrier Not A Problem” thinking I had clearly adopted. I went and saw a Japanese Macbeth and a Kabuki King Lear. And now I am SERIOUSLY thinking about a Russian “Three Sisters” (or whatever)? Isn’t age supposed to bring wisdom? What IS wrong with me?

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