05 Nov 2017

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

It may be impossible to answer the question, ‘What do we mean by ‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet’? But, rather than fretting, like Hamlet, over whether one should act upon one’s convictions, Dean and Jocelyn have been liberated by this very ‘inauthenticity’ and have fashioned their own Hamlet - which Dean has described as ‘focusing on a dysfunctional family with most of the geopolitics taken out’ (so we have no Fortinbras, Osric, Reynaldo and other courtiers). Having missed the summer performances at Glyndebourne, I was excited to have the opportunity to see and hear the results at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.

The challenge of touring with a cast, orchestra and technical crew of almost 200 personnel has necessitated some revisions: the programme notes that, ‘Both the production and the score have been substantially reworked to allow for the demands of different venues’, resulting in ‘a brand-new version of [director Neil Armfield’s] production’. Yet, even if the original opening scene, in which Hamlet was seen kneeling at his father’s grave, has been replaced (revival director, Lloyd Wood) by a celebratory feast in the grand white dining room of set designer Ralph Myer’s elegant manor house, Dean’s and Jocelyn’s approach to the text and to the characterisation of the eponymous Dane are immediately apparent.

Isolated by Jon Clark’s spectral lighting (revived by David Manion), Hamlet is foregrounded against the dinner guests in modern evening dress who are seated, frozen in shadow, behind. He mutters and murmurs, fragmentations of Shakespeare’s text flitting through his mind like a primer of famous quotations from the text’s familiar soliloquies - ‘The rest is …’, ‘To be or not to be’; but, one’s expectation that the latter will conclude, ‘that is the question’, is denied by the creators’ delvings into the ‘Bad’ Quarto, and we are met with, ‘Aye, there’s the point’. And, that’s about it as far as the play’s soliloquies go, although these few opening lines do reappear intermittently through the opera. Consequently, we are not privy to Hamlet’s internal vacillations as he wavers between self-loathing despair, suicidal distress, vengeful determination and academic disputation.

Some may feel that Hamlet’s soliloquies ‘define’ Hamlet; that the protagonist’s dilemma - whether to act, to ‘take up arms against a sea of troubles’, or to be passive, a stoic like Horatio - is the driving force of the play. Hamlet’s wavering between submissive forbearance and nobility of action creates inner conflict and also tension for the audience. Certainly, Hamlet is ‘about’ love, murder, betrayal - the perennial stuff of opera - but it is also about ‘ideas’, and Dean and Jocelyn pay little attention to the play’s philosophical abstractions. Perhaps that’s a wise decision, and to the benefit of the dramatic tautness of the opera, but it does deprive this Hamlet of any character ‘development’: he is raving and morose at the start, and that’s the way he stays. This operatic Hamlet is less, in the words of director Armfield, ‘the story of someone who is trying to find the truth’, and more a study in melancholy, its causes, manifestations and effects.

Claudius and Gertrude with P.jpg William Dazeley (Claudius), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Polonius), Louise Winter (Gertrude). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The angry petulance of David Butt Philip’s Hamlet is evident from this opening scene, as he whips away his chair from the royal couple’s central table and retreats in sulky pique. There is subsequently much childish chair-throwing and some immature baiting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Hamlet tauntingly snatches their pristine pocket-handkerchiefs and brandishes them with a scornful flourish. However, Butt Philip (who sang the role of Laertes in the premiere run this summer) strikingly communicates Hamlet’s introspective alienation and combines this, paradoxically, with a restless physicality, while the shapeliness of phrasing and the tenor’s vocal warmth invite our compassion. Moreover, Hamlet’s prevailing agitation throws into relief the few moments of stillness, making his quiet, almost tender, rejection of Ophelia - ‘I did love you once’ - all the more heart-rending, particularly when his plain words are echoed by Ophelia in her madness.

Hamlet strikes Ophelia.jpg Louise France (Ophelia) and David Butt Philip (Hamlet). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Dean’s first scene also introduces the ‘meta-theatrical’ dimension of the Hamlet - ‘the play’s the thing’, after all - with its incessant references to ‘acting’ and ‘playing’, and its presentation of the protagonist as a ‘director’ who manipulates theatrical convention in his search for ‘truth’. The faces of the cast are caked with white powder, as if they are participants in a theatrical masquerade. And, Myers’ set, which slickly swivels to transform the grand dining room first into a cavernous ghostly chamber, and then an intimate interior, eventually converts into a tumble-down back-stage area where the Players gather. The latter’s performance is brief, sensibly restricted to just the dumb-show, and accompanied by an on-stage accordionist (Miloš Milivojević) whose wheezy bellows add to the meta-theatrical self-awareness.

The role of Ophelia was written with the qualities and capacities of its first interpreter, Barbara Hannigan, in mind. Polonius’ daughter is no static, one-dimensional victim but a feisty young woman who not so much crumbles but explodes into insanity. Though she is repeatedly belittled by the condescending Polonius - Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts spits out the guttural consonants of the put-down, ‘green girl’ - and Laertes, she stands her ground in the face of the latter’s impertinence. dismissing her brother’s warnings about her loss of honour with an indifferent repeated riposte, ‘Yes, good, my brother’.

There is very little sense of the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet, though, and almost no interaction between them, only a scene of bitter rejection as Hamlet projects his feelings of rage against his mother onto Ophelia - ‘get thee to a nunnery’. Indeed, subject to incessant derision and maltreatment by all the male characters, it is no surprise that Ophelia goes mad. Moreover, Dean and Jocelyn have skilfully re-arranged Shakespeare’s text so that rather than Polonius reading the love letters she has received from Hamlet, Ophelia is humiliated by her father and forced to recite them to Claudius and Gertrude. Elsewhere, too, the creators exploit opera’s potential for a simultaneity which deepens expressivity, sharing lines and creating duets which convey the affection that Hamlet feels towards Gavan Ring’s sympathetic Horatio. They also allow Gertrude to speak with Claudius about the reasons for her son’s confusion and ‘turbulent and dangerous lunacy’, and here and throughout the opera Louise Winters makes much of Gertrude’s lyricism and her own full tone to arouse sympathy for the duplicitous queen. In contrast, elsewhere Dean’s general avoidance of vocal lyricism results in a distancing of the characters whose dilemmas and conflictions were do not really enter.

Ophelia mad scene Richard Hubert Smith.jpg Jennifer France (Ophelia). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

In Shakespeare’s play, it is Ophelia’s song fragments which exhibit and heighten her derangement and enforce her isolation. However, if the prevailing medium is song, a composer is challenged to find an idiom or means of equalling such tragic pathos, and Dean’s response is one of the highpoints of the opera. Jennifer France’s portrayal of Ophelia’s disintegration is distressingly visceral, as the mezzo’s silky vocal tone and pin-point coloratura of Act 1 transmutes into a gut-wrenching primitive scream. Ophelia bursts onto the stage, only a man’s evening tailcoat covering her underwear; splattered with grime, her filthy hair hanging in rat’s tails, and clutching fractured green grasses, she seems already to have attempted to drown herself in the muddy river. Mutter fragments of recalled derision are replaced by bawdy songs which seem to turn Ophelia’s breakdown into a ‘performance’, a bold, overtly sexual display. Finally, sound replaces words: a hum, a wail, then a scream, this vocal manifestation of tragic alienation rise ever higher, until France flings out a stratospheric, primeval howl, the defiant energy of which is made even more arresting by the stillness of the stunned characters who witness Ophelia’s crisis.

Lloyd-Roberts’ prolix, presumptuous Polonius is without doubt a ‘tedious fool’ - and has one of the opera’s best one-liners, ‘I will be brief’ - but his foolishness in no way lessens our discomfort at his abusive treatment of his daughter. As Claudius, William Dazeley offers an eloquent plea for divine pardon although, as he places one knee upon a back-stage chair, after the Players’ unsettling show, it might not be clear to those unfamiliar with the play that the king is actually at prayer - the reason that Hamlet, who desires both revenge and justice, desists from killing his step-father - thus weakening the cruel irony that the hypocritical Claudius prays for forgiveness for one murder just as he has made arrangements for Hamlet’s own death.

Laertes and Claudius.jpg Rupert Charlesworth (Laertes) and William Dazeley (Claudius). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The post-dumb-show scenes feel rather lengthy, too, with Polonius’ death - a natural point of pause, perhaps - Hamlet’s subsequent conversation with Gertrude, and the reappearance of the Ghost all taking place before the interval, making for a long first Act. No doubt, Dean and Jocelyn were guided by the wish to open the second Act with a dramatic gesture: and they certainly achieve this with the resounding cries of welcome which the semi-chorus launch from the Circle balcony to greet the returning Laertes, played with arrogant self-assurance by Rupert Charlesworth.

As the Ghost of Old Hamlet, Brian Bannatyne-Scott is a disturbing presence, seated up-stage, streaked with spears of light which pour through the tall windows stage-right and pierce the darkness, his back turned from his troubled son. But, while the Scottish bass thunders his command that Hamlet should revenge his father’s foul and unnatural murder, the Ghost is robbed of his nobility by the questionable decision to have him remove his jacket and appear before his son in his under-vest. Surely it is the Ghost’s military might that Shakespeare emphasises when he has Horatio remark the spectre’s ‘fair and warlike form/In which the majesty of buried Denmark/ Did sometimes march’ and Hamlet comment on the Ghost’s apparel when he appears ‘again in complete steel’?

Bannatyne-Scott triples up, as the First Player and as the Gravedigger. In the latter manifestation, he tosses poor Yorick’s skull as if it were a tennis ball and the easy nonchalance which ‘custom’ has bred is evoked by the grubby knotted handkerchief which perches askew on his crown. I wondered, though, why Dean and Jocelyn have chosen to interpolate much spoken text in this scene - previously, the odd line or two are spoken or half-spoken - and in the final scene, when Hamlet challenges Laertes to fight a duel on Ophelia’s grave?

The inefficacy and bewilderment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is expertly communicated by countertenors Rupert Enticknap and James Hall, whose voices blend as one as they synchronise their self-conscious hand-wringing and tentative smiles of appeasement.

Dean’s busy score is vigorously driven forwards by conductor Duncan Ward. Dean plummets the eerie depths and scales nerve-jangling heights, finding a kaleidoscope of timbres for every expressive shade that the drama explores. Although the dictates of touring mean that it is not possible to reproduce the use of electronic reverberations and satellite instrumental and choral groups employed in Glyndebourne’s opera house, Dean’s score makes a striking, often discomforting, impact.

While Dean’s Hamlet may not divulge or explore all of the Danish prince’s procrastinations, the opera certainly offered this listener much to think about.

Claire Seymour

Brett Dean: Hamlet

Hamlet - David Butt Philip, Claudius - William Dazely, Laertes - Rupert Charlesworth, Ophelia - Jennifer France, Polonius - Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Horatio - Gavan Ring, Marcellus/Player 4 - John Mackenzie-Lavansch, Gertrude - Louise Winter, Ghost of Old Hamlet/Gravedigger/Player 1 - Brian Ballantyne-Scott, Rosencrantz - Rupert Enticknap, Guildenstern - James Hall, Player 2 - John Findon, Player 3 - Anthony Osborne, Classical Accordionist - Miloš Milivojević, Actors - Ashley Bain, Anthony Kurt Gabel, Ralf Higgins, Mark Ruddick; director - Neil Armfield, conductor - Duncan Ward, revival director - Lloyd Wood, set designer - Ralph Myers, costume designer - Alice Babage, movement director - Denni Sayers, lighting designer - Jon Clark, revival lighting designer - David Manion, fight director - Nicholas Hall, Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master - Nicholas Jenkins).

The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; Friday 3rd November 2017.