There is truly something magical about going to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London. It is an authentically reconstructed replica of the original Globe Theatre, built by the Lord Chamberlain’s men in 1599. The original building burned down in 1613 as a result of cannon fire used during a production of Henry VIII. It was rebuilt the following year, until it was torn down later on that century. Nowadays, for a sum of £5, groundlings can stand and watch a Shakespeare play, or you can pay more to sit in luxury on a wooden bench in the galleries. There is a £2 charge to hire a cushion but it will be the best £2 you will ever spend in your life! Even watching the shortest Shakespeare play can be hard on the derrière! I absolutely love the Globe Theatre and wish I could live there. It has been lovingly restored and truly feels like stepping back in time, 400 years, to Elizabethan England. Every time I go to London, I make sure that I watch a play here. There is something special about watching theatre open to the elements, pigeons, planes and helicopters. Hamlet is my favourite play so I made sure that I caught it when the summer season was announced.
The 2018 season of plays introduces Michelle Terry as the artistic director of the Globe, following Emma Rice’s unfortunate resignation. Michelle Terry instantly puts her own stamp on her productions, using the Shakespeare ensemble to employ gender-blind casting, creating a truly diverse cast. Genders are switched, with men being cast as female characters and vice versa. Michelle Terry takes centre stage by playing Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark.
Every production of Hamlet hinges on its casting of the infamous Dane. Michelle Terry delivers a strong performance as Hamlet, but I feel that she races through the dialogue, resulting in the entire production feeling rushed. This is particularly evident in the fencing match, which turns far too quickly into a graveyard. There is no time given for Claudius to deservedly suffer as he dies, nor is there any time allocated to Hamlet’s death. She appears fine one second and is dead the next. The rushed production means that you don’t feel much of an emotional attachment towards Michelle Terry’s Hamlet. This is a real shame as she was superb as Rosalind in As You Like It!
Hamlet’s slip into madness is also absurd, with her wearing a full clown costume. It makes it blatantly obvious that Hamlet is putting on an “antic disposition”. Personally, I prefer Hamlets that subtly slip into madness, making the audience question whether his madness is fabricated, or whether the death of his father has truly left him depressed and suicidal. Performing the notorious “to be or not to be” soliloquy dressed in a clown outfit feels ridiculous, rather than moving. There is no possibility of taking this soliloquy seriously when the character is dressed in a full clown costume. This should be a moving speech, where Hamlet is deliberating whether he should commit suicide and pondering mortality. It doesn’t feel natural; it feels strained, almost like watching a recital, rather than genuinely watching a character considering death.
In complete contrast to this is gender switched Ophelia, superbly played by male actor, Shubham Saraf. Saraf strips back his performance and hauntingly portrays Ophelia’s overwhelming grief over her father’s death, caused by her lover. The scene where Ophelia delivers rosemary and other flowers, in remembrance of her father, is perfectly captured by Claudius’ reaction to this sight; deep sorrow and regret. What struck me most is the devastating grief and anger that Saraf displays by brutally beating his chest and erupting into fits of intense rage. The song that Ophelia sings of her father; “he is gone“, is heart-breaking to watch. A blend of anger and despair, it is beautifully performed. Sharaf delivers one of the most striking, memorable representations of Ophelia that I have seen. It will stay with me for a long time!
James Garnon also excels in the role of Claudius. With him being a veteran of the Globe’s ensemble, I have been a fan of his for a long time. He was a deliciously evil Cardinal in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, so I was excited when I discovered that he would be playing Hamlet’s murderous uncle, Claudius. His portrayal of this character is truly unique, making him seem like a nice person that had gone awry, having been corrupted by power. He inserts a likability and humanity to Claudius’ character that makes it appear that he is truly remorseful of his crimes. Saying that, there is also a streak of violence to his character that made the audience gasp in shock, in one place. I love this different, entertaining Claudius. He is utterly compelling.
Unfortunately, I find the character of Laertes miscast. I have no problems with a woman playing this role but I struggled to hear any of Bettrys Jones‘ dialogue. I sat on the second row of the lower gallery, quite near to the stage, yet her voice doesn’t project very well at all. This becomes a real problem when actors at The Globe have to contend with the noise of jet engines, as a result of the theatre being open to the elements and placed underneath the flight path of Heathrow airport.
There are other things that don’t quite fit with me either; the representation of Polonius as a bumbling fool, rather than a scheming politician who cruelly manipulates his daughter, being one of them. The strange mix between modern and Elizabethan costume doesn’t work for me either. I also don’t like the bareness of the stage and absence of many props, as I love the traditional props used at this theatre. Because the stage is so bare, there is a complete lack of a heightened feeling of confinement to prompt the line; “Denmark’s a prison“. It makes the production feel like it is missing the play’s political scheming and deception.
However, there are plenty of things to enjoy about this play. As usual, the music at the Globe is fantastic. Glorious period brass instruments triumphantly ring out and reverberate across the theatre. The Mouse Trap is a captivating scene, effectively performed through dance. But where the production truly soars is in its casting of deaf actress, Nadia Nadarajah, who plays Guildenstern, and its incorporation of British Sign Language into the play. This must have caused difficulties considering the archaic language of Shakespeare’s work and the complexities of iambic pentameter. It is truly refreshing to witness sign language being used naturally in a play, particularly when the jig is performed using BSL too. This is a complete highlight of the production for me. I hope this opens the door and encourages more diversity, with disabilities becoming better represented in the arts.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable production of Hamlet, but it fell a little flat for me. It doesn’t stir me the way that this play usually does. It feels rushed and skips through the poignant parts of the play too quickly, resulting in me feeling emotionally detached from the protagonist. However, it has the most striking Ophelia I have ever seen, and brilliantly incorporates BSL into the production.