Hamlet at RADA: Undone, unravelled, unfazed

The only indication that this is where the hottest ticket of this year, for one of the most exclusive theatre events is happening, is a modest sheet of A4 paper hung on the glass-fronted building. It reads: “HAMLET. Doors open one hour before the performance.”

No posters, no production photos, nothing else.

There’s no need: the 3-week run of Hamlet with Tom Hiddleston in the title role and directed by Kenneth Branagh, staged to raise funds for a new-build RADA theatre, is sold out.

Ever since opening night the press has clamoured for the production to be streamed live in cinemas so that a wider audience can see it. There are no plans to do so, and this adds to the tingle of privilege and excitement one feels walking into the tiny horse-shoe shaped auditorium that seats a mere 160,  knowing that you are one of the lucky few to bag a ticket. Even at £95 a throw.

This excitement at being at an exclusive super-star event is enhanced by the sheer physical closeness to the actors. If I reached out my hand, I could touch them. But from the moment the play starts, the actors touch me, emotionally. Hiddleston is magnificent: his range stunning. The excellent, diverse ensemble cast shines and Branagh’s direction throws fresh light on the emotional complexities of the play.

Two particular aspects of the production deepened my understanding of the dramatic possibilities of the play. The first was the emotional vulnerability Hiddleston brought to the role of Hamlet.

As the lights come up Hamlet sits centre stage at a small piano and tentatively picks out a half-remembered bluesy tune of such melancholy sweetness that it feels as if he hesitates to play the notes for fear they will evoke too much unbearable pain. Quietly mellifluous, he half-sings, half-speaks the slow, grief-filled words as they come to him, as if from far away.

And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead;
Go to thy deathbed;
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll.
He is gone, he is gone.

When he sings these last words his warm voice thins and cracks and tears wet his cheeks – and we keenly feel his fragility, his loneliness, his vulnerability. Shakespeare didn’t write this scene – he has us meet Hamlet for the first time in a scene characterized by brittle hostility – and I was struck by the boldness of beginning the play with what appeared to be entirely new material. But the feelings with which Tom Hiddleston imbues this song creates in the audience an empathic alignment with Hamlet’s state of mind, and this forms a bedrock of understanding that informs all that follows. When he is spiky or enraged, vengeful or cruel, we know the emotional devastation that underlies it.

I felt deeply affected as Hiddleston deftly moved through changing states of mind. When he meets Polonius he’s reading Matt Haig’s brilliant Reasons to Stay Alive, the book that like no other shows the complex thought-patterns and fluctuating mindsets that are ongoing underneath the dull exterior of depression, whilst also reminding us of the possibility of recovery. Indeed, when Hamlet engages with death beside Yorick’s graveside, he comes to life. He bounces delightfully off Ansu Kabia’s light comedic touch as the Gravedigger.

The second revelation was the genesis of Ophelia’s madness in her relationship with her father Polonius. New light was thrown on Ophelia’s character for me, not only through Branagh’s incisive direction, but also Sean Foley’s brilliant work as the oily, obsequious Polonius. The verbose character loves the sound of his own voice and has often become tedious to watch for that very reason. But Foley finds the humour in the role and makes us love to loathe him. Importantly, the insights that this production provides result from the way Foley’s Polonius engages with his children. I want to expand on that a little.

Ophelia’s brother Laertes’ injunctions as to how his sister should comport herself in his absence are rife with florid sexual references and double-entendre-laden warnings, whilst he himself tucks away a packet of condoms to show her what he will be up to whilst away. Then Polonius arrives to bid his son farewell – and presses a large carton of condoms into Laertes’ hands, in a way that demonstrates parental sexual intrusiveness. Polonius too talks to Ophelia in queasily intrusive sexual overtones.

When Ophelia comes to her father for comfort after a shocking encounter with the grief-stricken, anxious Hamlet, Polonius offers no containment to her, but rather amplifies her confusion and distress by insisting that the prince was expressing “the very ecstasy of love”. Rather than recognize that Hamlet’s grief over his recently deceased father troubles him, Polonius convinces Ophelia that she is the cause of the madness: by rejecting his love. Thus he imprints on her that her sexuality is damaging.

He does not comfort her – in fact,  even as she sits distraught on the ground, he neglects her state of mind entirely and excitedly rushes to the King and Queen to tell them all about his new, titillating discovery. In Shakespeare’s original version, he goes alone, but Branagh has Polonius take his daughter with him. The shame and embarrassment to the poor girl to hear her father read Hamlet’s love letters out loud is palpable and we see her begin to fragment. This worsens as the royal couple gratefully accept Polonius’s reasoning that Ophelia’s sexual appeal is to blame for Hamlet’s “hot love” (her father’s lasciviously uttered phrase sees Ophelia cringe); that she is the cause for his descent “into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watch, thence into a weakness, thence to a lightness, and, by this declension, into the madness wherein now he raves.”

Polonius’ description of Hamlet’s decline serves as a template for Ophelia’s own descent into madness later on, but this particular scene reminded me powerfully of Freud’s Dora: as in her case, here too, parents and long-standing adult friends of the family blatantly connive to use and abuse a fragile teenage girl as currency in maneuvers that are designed to paper over the cracks in the adults’ own complex and unscrupulous sexual relationships.

Kathryn Wilder’s Ophelia’s slight, waif-like frame betrays how little she wishes to ‘take in’, and one can easily see why. Her father’s thoughts turn by default to her sexual collateral, and he is persistently sexually intrusive. This is combined with emotional neglect of her when she is disturbed: he walks away from her and disregards her when she is in distress. He meets her with misrecognition of her lived experience, and tells her that her perceptions are incorrect, whereas it is actually he who consistently misreads the emotional temperature. And he is manipulative: when he, Claudius and Gertrude plot to lay a trap for Hamlet, with Ophelia as bait, he makes her complicit by having her present, and therefore guilty – yet at the same time it renders her even more powerless.

The innocent and loving intimacy that exists between Hamlet and Ophelia appears to be the only affectionate relationship in her life, and one which is firmly rooted in genuinely felt reality. When Hamlet turns against her, that too is lost. When he roughly rejects her, he too misrecognises her intentions, her very essence; and he too says one thing when he feels another. This misrecognition is what undoes her.

In previous stagings, Ophelia seems to ‘just go mad’, and her madness seems inexplicably sexual in its origins and utterances. When she is mad, she sings of flowers and these are often played as sexual metaphors. But this production highlights a potential other, deeper cause. When she sings, she sings the very song that Hamlet started with. It caught my breath when I recognized the words, and it sparked my imagination. Perhaps she’d heard him sing this sad song, once? Perhaps they’d sung the song together? It reminded us, the audience, of their lifelong friendship with each other; it links her to him in a way that shifts our thoughts to her distant history. The link to the song amplifies that both youngsters lost not only a father but also each other: their friendship, their comfortable closeness, and their hopes of love.

The elements that Branagh and Foley have highlighted in Polonius’ way of being with his child, shed light on why Ophelia’s internal world would have been so fragile, so as to fragment in the way it does. It is the first time I have noticed the profundity of this constellation.

The play features many different ways of relating, notably between Hamlet and his friends, who in this production are all women. Rosacrantz and Guildastern convey the immediacy of the camaraderie between fellow students, which warms the cockles of the heart but quickly unravels in adversity. His friendship with Horatia on the other hand strengthens as time goes on: she has the capacity to listen, to recognize, and above all, to bear his experiences, unfazed. This listening relationship, in which someone can digest what you divulge to them, and think about them with you, is one of the most valuable relationships in life.

I feel privileged to have been at this performance, not because the tickets were like gold dust but for the sheer joy of being present at such a thoughtful creative process. The lack of press and the small scale of the place make for a safe space in which the players can explore the story and the feelings that arise from it. The absence of ego and of external pressures provides a sense of  freedom and breathing space.

I was deeply moved by Hiddleston’s Hamlet. Branagh’s direction has thrown new light on the characters’ storylines by enriching the chains of association, and there are stand-out performances by the whole ensemble.