Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Federay Holmes and Elle While
The Globe’s first free full-length Shakespeare of these viral times is Hamlet from 2018, featuring artistic director Michelle Terry in the title role. It’s a brave first choice, as it didn’t score very highly with reviewers. There are 12 members of cast split equally between genders, but this is not a gender-swapping gimmick and within minutes the genders of all the characters are unimportant as directors Federay Holmes and Elle While present a fluid Hamlet with a focus on clear storytelling.
The only time that we are aware of Hamlet’s gender perhaps is when Claudius accuses Hamlet’s grief for his father’s death of being unmanly. It’s impossible not to raise an eyebrow at that, but from then on it doesn’t matter that Horatio, Ophelia and Laertes too are gender-swapped and this production is otherwise a traditional one with the emphasis on Hamlet’s madness being a result of his unfinished mourning.
With scrunched-up eyes and slumped shoulders, Terry’s Hamlet is initially stupefied with sorrow that his father, the King, has died. This misery soon becomes anger when his mother marries his uncle so soon after her husband’s death. This may be cause for rage, but at first Hamlet seems petulant and childish. It’s not until he sees his father’s ghost that his fury appears legitimate.
When we next see Hamlet, he is dressed as a clown, his red lipstick mouth uncannily foretelling that of Joaquin Phoenix in last year’s Joker. Despite the costume it’s not certain that Hamlet is feigning madness here; he seems torn apart, desperate, and yet the moments when he is completely in control of his emotions are few. Grief has clearly unmoored him.
Grief is also the reason for Ophelia’s madness, and as played by Shubham Saraf, she is earnest, but it is obvious that she lacks agency, bowing to her brother and father’s demands. That gender is incidental is demonstrated by the fact that Saraf only wears a dress to perform as a woman. There is no need for wigs, jewellery or make up, and as such Ophelia’s state of mind is more nakedly poignant.
The first long half goes quickly, but the second half, beginning with Polonius’s death behind the arras, rattles by and it is here where we have the best scenes, especially between Hamlet and Gertrude (stately played by Helen Schlesinger), and between Hamlet and Claudius (a brilliant and devious James Garnon). But it is Terry’s play and under Ian Russell’s screen direction we are able to see every feature of her face as Hamlet wavers between cognizance and insanity, even sharper when night comes allowing the audience to vanish into blackness.
It’s a thrilling evening, and surprisingly for the Globe, which always likes to get its audience involved, short on laughs. Even the customary dance at the end, featuring sign language, is performed with solemnity. But after all what’s gone before, perhaps this is the best way to finish.
Available here or the Globe Player until 12 April 2020