Nunn's 'Hamlet': a report from the kitchen

Ronald Bryden at Stratford - from read-through to first night.

This is not so much a review as a report on an experiment. It's a perennial battle-cry in the wars between critics and theatre-folk that we show-tasters judge a play by a single sampling. In the artificially frought conditions of a first night. We decide its future in three tense, unnatural hours, as brutally and superficially as the eleven-plus decides a child's. Instead, it is urged, we ought to go into the kitchen and see the real work of a play's making: the whole evolving process, from read-through to première, which is the true life of a theatrical production. I've been doing just this with Trevor Nunn's new Stratford Hamlet. I'm not sure I've any firm conclusions to bring to the argument, but it's been one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

Alan Howard as Hamlet 'a sharp, smouldering stare of misery'

Strictly, I can say, what the theatre-folk ask isn't possible. A working London critic, seeing three or four plays, simply hasn't time to follow any production through all its days and nights of rehearsal. I managed to snatch one day to hear Nunn's initial talk to his company, outlining his intentions. Four weeks into rehearsal (there were six), I managed to steal six days to watch the stage at which, lines pretty well mastered, the cast began to commit themselves to their characterisations. One week before opening, I saw the last run-through before the play moved on to the big Stratford stage.

But long before that, I knew there could be no clear outcome. The show-folks' point was proved: I'd never again be able to see the first night - any first night - as a thing in itself, to be judged in isolation. It would be part of the whole process I'd glimpsed of trial, of rejection, of deepening and growth, exploring the hundreds of Hamlets possible with that cast alone. On the other hand, I'd never be able to judge that process, not with the detachment necessary for criticism. I was hopelessly involved, an accomplice, willing it, Nunn and the actors to succeed.

I think they have - Thursday's opening night cheers seemed to bear out that this is one of the best things the Royal Shakespeare has achieved under Nunn's direction. To some extent, seeing the play set and dressed for the first time, I was finally able to weigh his total design against his intentions, and found it brilliant. But on the whole, I can only report and explain. That, I suppose, is what theatre people really want, and for once it seems peculiarly appropriate.

In his talk Nunn explained that for him the key scenewould be the play within the play, the key line Hamlet's 'Suit the action to the word.' For him, Hamlet was a study in alienation: the gulf between thought and will, will and performance. By the players, Hamlet the thinker is taught how to feel and perform, to bridge the gap between inner and outer worlds in action.

He didn't mention R.D. Laing, but this should go down as the Laingian Hamlet. When the lights go up on the furred Court of Denmark, Hamlet is the one black figure in a blaze of bridal white: the one man questioning that all is well in the best of possible worlds, based as that world is on death, incest and falsehood. His madness is not just feigned, it is a Laingian escape from a society built on lunatic deceptions into the lonely sanity of private truth. Between the blacks and whites of public and personal morality, his will is puzzled, until the players burst with a torrent of colour on to the bare Elizabethan platform Christopher Morley has made of the Stratford stage.

It sounds arbitrary, dangerously like claiming a once-for-all key to the labyrinth of the play. Perhaps, but it breeds marvellous complexities. In the black, avenging cowl of Denmark's scourge and minister, Hamlet is play-acting, unable to kill Claudius. Stripped and pummelled cruelly by his enemy after Polonius's murder, he is tamed, stunned into conformity. A white, brainwashed figure, he departs for England, but now the fighting in his soul is over. He will play this society's game with it: deceive, smile and kill.

In such a reading the key soliloquy is not the black and white alternative of 'To be or not to be.' It is 'Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I': the speech in which Hamlet, envying the player king his painted passion, wrestles agonisingly with himself to separate imaginary, histrionic emotions from real ones, to dredge up from the depths of his being a true response to his mother's adultery, his father's murder.

In fact, Nunn has turned the play into a commentary on the process I watched in its rehearsals. Alan Howard has always been one of the Royal Shakespeare's most fascinating actors, intelligent to a fault in his refusal to take the simple, unambiguous line of direct feeling through any role. He is a brilliant elaborator, an infinitely fertile inventor of ironies, jokes and defensive strategies for implying emotion by denying it.

When I joined the fourth week of rehearsals, this was how he was playing Hamlet: as a glittering, sardonic concealer of his genuine feelings, the most adept Machiavellian in a Machiavellian court. As a verbal swordsman, the Renaissance avenger chuckling over death's jest-book, he was impressive but glacial - I thought, gloomily, that this would be a Hamlet definitive in a kind I had no wish to see.

But there were still gaps in his characterisation, holes he walked round or through, muttering or throwing away the lines while a significant hush fell over the rehearsal hall. They were the lines where Hamlet is not acting: the soliloquies, 'Give me the man who is not passion's slave.' 'The readiness is all.' Tactfully, the other actors waited for him to show his hand, pressing him only where their own playing required answering violence to spark from. But it was clear that his performance must be the tent-pole, to whose height, and no higher, the production would rise.

Gradually, as I watched, he mastered his reticence. Slowly elaboration fell away, the sardonic camouflages and dazzling escape devices. His performance grew more and more still, and, as it did so, amazingly younger. It was as if he was stripping from himself not only years, but the defensive armour, the competence to hide the child in the adult, which they had brought. The jeering glances, the sharp small-toothed smiles diminished. In their place emerged a dark, smouldering stare of misery, a sudden, dismayed fall of the mouth, like a child who has been slapped.

I see now why actors feel this is what critics should pass on. This is their real work: the slow, painful mining of themselves for the emotion we normally stifle, dragging them to light, so that, watching, an audience is compelled to feel those extremities we avoid in life, to discover in sympathy the naked natures we bury in social masquerade. But I don't think anyone who saw Howard on the stage last Thursday could fail to recognise the work he had done; that he had gone far beyond any performance he's previously given, to become not merely an actor to watch but one to reckon with.

There are other fine things in the production: Brenda Bruce's Gertrude, aware from the closet scene onwards that she has married a murderer, and frozen with horror and pity for him; David Waller's Claudius, brutal, commanding but unstrung by the loss of the woman he killed for; Helen Mirren's Ophelia, victim of the same false society Hamlet hates, following him into madness so that she too may tell it the truth. But having seen them in rehearsal, individual achievements dim beside the collective one of mutual trust in which their Prince could perform his labour of self-discovery and exposure. Trevor Nunn has proved another point to me: this is how stars are made.

Ronald Bryden

The Observer Review, 7.6.1970.

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