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Hamlet at the Harold Pinter

Hamlet at the Harold Pinter

Hamlet at the Harold Pinter

Starring Andrew Scott

Directed by Robert Icke

This is a scene by scene review/commentary.

In case you plan to see the play, or have a chance of doing so, please skip the review and head to West End. It is not to be missed. Get thee to the play. Seriously! In case you just cannot catch it, then make do with this. I have tried to capture my experience of the play, it is hardly comparable to being there, but I had to write this long commentary so that I don’t forget what it felt like to watch this amazing performance, and so that I preserve for myself the thoughts and feelings that were evoked through it.

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A spartan set greets the audience, which in addition to the lack of anything royal about it, also has a few unexpected elements. A large sofa to one corner, two-three steel chairs to either side, and what looks like a steam-punk console of some sorts to one corner.

* * * *

Act 1 Scene 1

To the immediate surprise of the spectators, the play opens with large flat TV screens switching on all around them with weird footages playing in them.

Instead of a guard platform we get a CCTV observation room. The guards look flustered and soon, of course, Horatio enters (in some style I must say, much more casual in attire compared to the stiff suited guards).

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Marcellus and Barnardo resume their attempts to convince Horatio (one is to assume somehow the CCTVs could not record the supernatural stuff, I guess) of what they have seen when all of a sudden horrific static erupts in the theater and the dead King appears on-screen, ominous and really really spooky. A collective gasp from the audience at this. It was pretty effective – considering the Dane had only come on screen yet – the audience has not been introduced to the real ghost yet. I wondered if all ghost scenes would be thorough CCTVs… that would be a pity even if it went pretty splendidly this time. After all how would the father-son equation, which is the core of the play, play out through CCTVs? In any case, even as Scholar Horatio tries to hail the Ghost (who is in military attire, as a modern parallel to the armor worn by the original), there is a minor explosion at the console and the Ghost had disappeared from the screens as abruptly as it had appeared.

Before the scene concludes Horatio quickly updates the soldiers about what is happening in the kingdom and why security is so tight these days: The old King killed his rival King of Norway, Fortinbras, and conquered his territories. Now his (Norway’s) son, in revenge, is attempting to take back his territories with a small band of rag-tag outlaws he had gathered. Mark that from this it doesn’t feel like Fortinbras had any chance of defeating Denmark, but then an internal revenge drama will facilitate the external revenge drama. Pretty sweet, right? This is something that is often overlooked I guess, but maybe there was a poetic symmetry to this as well.

The Ghost makes another abrupt appearance, throwing the guards and Horatio into another frenzy. More frantic fiddling of the dials, etc. ensue (to be honesty this time it felt a bit comic, the reactions).

Ghost exits. It faded on the crowing of the cock – the guards quickly trying to explain away the unknown with the presumed known, finding some comfort in their astute understanding of how the supernatural world is supposed to function. We have to make everything conform to rules, absurd rules may it be.

They decide that they have to inform Hamlet of what has been happening here.

Scene closes to some stunning music and the stage goes pitch black. Obviously some stage rearrangement was underway in the darkness, though I am unsure how they manage to do so in that darkness. Must take some deft hands.

Act 1, Scene 2

The shady guard-room is transformed now into a stunning Titanic-movie-ball-room like atmosphere with golden draperies, sliding glass doors, elegant women with wine glasses, and fine music in the background. For a moment Denmark doesn’t feel like a place of omens and forebodings, but like a late evening at the Buckingham Palace (sans all the chinese tourists).

Claudius looks stately and kingly dealing with the matter of Fortinbras in very efficient style, and at this point no one could clearly have imagined that Denmark could be under any threat under such efficient management.

This is the moment when it hits you that the play is not going to bowl you over with the visual spectacle of medieval costumes and regalia. It feels more like a very elegant boardroom or a modern Lord’s mansion than the royal court in which you would have imagined these scenes playing out normally. This means that this play has to transport you all on itself, without much help from the visuals – which is quite apart from the normal theater or movie-going experience nowadays. I have a slight pang of regret that I am missing out on the costumes, but it is not as if we have a shortage of medieval costumes on TV these days.

And then, and then… A thin school boyish young man in what looks like a well-worn black tee traipses across the stage, a small ottoman in hand, and plants himself in one corner. The audience leans as one trying to get a glance at this moody, almost “emo” (forgive me) presence. Hamlet had entered he building folks, and it was electric. He had not uttered a word yet but he had captured the stage, he had filled the whole of it just by being in one corner of it. I knew then that this was going to be awesome. There were goosebumps. And just to clarify I was not a fan of Moriarty, or of what I had seen till then of Stewart’s acting. In fact I was skeptical that he can pull off a Hamlet after what I deemed as definite overacting as far as Moriarty was concerned, especially in the later episodes (Miss me? Miss me? Oh, just get the heck off!). But there was something about the entrance that immediately threw all my doubts out of the window.

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Claudius tries to introduce his son with some lame humor, but Andrew with the first quip, about being too-much-in-the-sun gets a too-much-in-the-rain British audience going immediately. It is really easy with the British, when it comes to weather jokes of course. Of course, the original joke about cloud-sun-son-cousin-son is also not lost in this, and the audience cheerfully laugh for both the original and the modern joke. This sort of personalization of dialogues is what Scott pulls off throughout the play – he never fiddles with the dialogues, and not a word is out-of-place (as he has to advice later against ad-libbing, this is only appropriate – this is one play you can never ad-lib!), but just by looking at the audience or half-smiling at the audience he makes them see other meanings in those words and react exactly as he wants. A master conductor of the audience he was throughout, and the way he conducted the audience (including this willing participant) was the true spectacle at the Harold Pinter that night.

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Gertrude’s first foray is to ask Hamlet to cut short his grief and the exchange really rubs in the fact that Hamlet feels his raw grief cannot be so easily cast aside, while Gertrude is insistent in asking him to do exactly that. Scott later says suppressed grief is for him one of the keys to the play, so this takes on special significance for me in hindsight. Claudius also  pitches in with some ineffectual self-help wisdom about how all living things die and blah blah blah – as this Hamlet wouldn’t hesitate to characterize it.

In any case Hamlet is convinced to stay back in court, albeit probably still in Black. A quick royal photo shoot before they disperse.

And then comes the first monologue – I was looking forward to this – Scott had proven he can use humor, especially dark humor, effectively to play the audience and establish himself, but a true Hamlet lives and dies by his monologues – and I was eager to see how this one would go, especially since this monologue is what will introduce the audience to the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind, to the anguish that torments him and again, to the extent of the grief that he is being asked to curtail.

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I leaned forward with the rest of the audience as Hamlet moved to the front of the stage and looked up at us to confide in us, to let us overhear his thoughts, to use Bloom’s terminology. The theater descended into silence as if we had entered another theater – the solemn one inside Hamlet’s mind – and after a long pause Scott’s voice gently started essaying. No firm utterances, almost a whisper, as if he was slowly constructing these thoughts, as if they were coming to him then and there. Stuttering, half-audible, the words came, and I felt as if at least a few in audience would surely tip over now, straining to catch the words. The tension was being built up, and I could see that Scott was the master of this too. He was showing us how monologues are nothing but thoughts – Hamlet was not delivering a monologue, he was just alone and thinking just like any of us. An everyday occurrence. The mighty, formidable monologues of Shakespeare had been tamed right in front of us, mysterious no more – they were going to be easy and accessible today in Scott’s hands. It was a relief as well as a mild let down – grandeur was not on stage today, reality was. Mirror to nature, indeed.

Gradually the muttered tirade about sullied flesh and unweeded garden rose to an audible pitch and the worried audience could finally make sense of what was being half-whispered. They leaned back a bit as they entered familiar territory with Hamlet talking about what a man his father was, about how his mother doted on him. And then, and then… within a month of his passing, Hamlet appeals to us, as if to a close friend… and turns away from the thought, breaking our hearts.

Now comes the first famous quote – I was on the lookout for this too – will Scott bombastically stress the famous quotations – because that will always engage the audience since they would recognize it and feel good about themselves… An easy win for a Shakespearean actor. I wanted to see how the famous Shakespearisms (?) would be handled.

Frailty, thy name is woman! Hamlet cries out in frustration. Within a month he says, couldn’t you have mourned longer? Within a month – married  my uncle… and here Scott pauses in the midst of this anguished cry of Hamlet, steps out from Hamlet’s skin and becomes himself for a second, just part of the audience. This was a moment of unquestionable genius for me – a moment when Scott brought in a cultural reference, made the play supremely accessible and also eased any worries of his audience by proving that he is completely on their side; just another bloke like them who enjoys the same type of stuff that they do. He effectively told them I am just one of you and we are going to have a ball with Hamlet – which is nothing to be scared of, but is in fact super-duper fun.

How did he do that?

Again, after saying she married my uncle, he paused, stepped out of character and gave a mischievous look to the audience before uttering the next line with a lot of emphasis – My father’s brother.

The audience exploded into laughter as we realized what he meant – uncle, yes, but not My mother’s brother folks, this is not Game of Thrones! – that is what the look conveyed. And Scott waited patiently for the laughter and relief of the audience to die down before picking up on his monologue/thoughts. From that moment onwards Scott had achieved what Shakespeare probably did back in the day – getting the audience thoroughly comfortable in the idea of actually enjoying a masterpiece instead of getting caught up in venerating it.

To me this was genius, especially because of the risk involved – to attempt laughter in the midst of the monologue that basically sets up the Hamlet character… it was a tightrope, but Scott was the perfect maestro again – he got us tense, he got us light and laughing, and from the next moment got us fully back into Hamlet and his grief again, and had us all feeling the foreboding as he concluded that it cannot come to good…

I think I forgot to breathe for a few minutes.

Horatio interrupts at the right time, to the relief of everyone including the audience and perhaps Hamlet himself. They embrace and laugh and the audience is made aware that this chap Horatio is a chap they can also trust. We are not going to question Hamlet on these matters, not tonight.

Another moment of mirth for the audience as Hamlet says I think I see my father, and Horatio and Marcello jerks in genuine comic fright. Horatio then begins the painful task of telling Hamlet that he had indeed seen his father… Hamlet seems to take Horatio at his word on this and agrees to come and see for himself at the observatory.

Act 1, Scene 3

Ophelia is introduced to the audience, along with her brother Laertes, as well as her father a bit down the line. Come to think of it, the whole family is pretty much introduced and established in this one scene. And it is my duty to report that the scene and much of the play was henceforth stolen and made his own by Polonius. Peter Wight, as Polonius, was brilliant and held the play together, truly.

Perhaps as an invention, here the scene opens with Hamlet and Ophelia making out before Laertes interrupts them, forcing Hamlet to hide behind the couch – which means that Hamlet is present, hidden away but visible to audience, for the rest of the scene.

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Laertes, packing to go for France, gets on the bad side of the audience very early as he is intent on advising Ophelia to not mess around with Hamlet.

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Laertes had earlier asked the King’s permission to go to France, was granted the same, and thus his very small initial role rapidly approaches its end… This is when Polonius, the light of this show, shines brightly and establishes himself as the audience favorite!

Polonius comes in to hurry Laertes on his way, but not before the pithy man has given his share of self-help tips. The spate of avuncular advises are delivered in a masterly way by Wight, and has the audience in splits throughout – though the audience is also, along with Laertes, earnestly hoping for the commonplaces to end. Laertes turns to depart three times, but is pulled back by Polonius to hear more about being neither a lender nor a borrower, a whole rendition of Kipling’s If, etc. (I exaggerate, of course).

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Then Polonius, having lost Laertes turns his advising prowess upon Ophelia’s love-life. Trying hard to summarize his own words multiple times, finally he sums it all up by asking Ophelia to not spend her leisure with Hamlet. Ophelia agrees with a wink to the audience and the audience is thrilled in having such a lovable villain in Polonius to troll for the rest of the evening.

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The scene ends very agreeably for the audience. Things are going very nicely and there is a lively energy buzzing across the theater. Nice music too. Clearly, we are in for a lot of Bob Dylan tonight.

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Act 1, Scene 4

However, the audience is immediately spooked mightily by the sudden descent of pitch darkness and eerie music. It is the graveyard shift. Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are visible now; we are back in the guard platform and it is Scooby-Doo time, everyone!

Cue eerie music, static on the speakers, and the CCTV screens start acting up. The royal Dane appears and Hamlet entreats speech. The king in the screen motions to Hamlet to approach. Hamlet goes closer. Marcellus utters the classic lines “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and follows with Horatio.

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And then…

The stage goes dark again and then starts alternating between light and dark, as if lightning was striking repeatedly. Loud static and spooky sounds fill the theater, the dead King’s face comes closer and closer and fills all the TV screens on stage, and then in one blinding flash the Ghost appears, in the flesh, in front of Hamlet – the effect was scintillating, since until now we had the image and now we had the thing. Hamlet touches the ghost and is able to touch. The father and son in the flesh, together. All the build-up was worth it for this one moment.

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The royal Dane preps Hamlet with the backstory and informs him that from now on art thou for revenge. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. Yes, murder! Murder most foul!

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.

I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched

And most importantly he was killed with no chance to repent for his sins, and hence he now roams as a ghost, plotting revenge. After importuning Hamlet to revenge his Murder, in another glorious spectacle the Dane vanishes.

Hamlet extracts a very strict promise (again and again!) from his friends to never repeat to anyone what happened there (presumably this promise is revoked at the end when Hamlet releases Horatio from the silence). This was an important scene as Scott clearly meant this to be an introduction to the audience to Hamlet’s dawning madness – after all, in one interpretation the madness might even have struck before the ghost appeared… In any case, his manner towards his friends have changed markedly, he is more frantic in speech, with more puns and hidden entendres in everything he says. The notebook also makes its appearance, as he notes down that it is possible to smile, smile and still be a villain.

Horatio utters his cue about how things are wondrous strange and I had my first let down as Hamlet said hurriedly, without any bravado –

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

I was expecting that with the dawning of madness being depicted there was license to give full flourish and bombast to this – as if to say that from here on out Horatio and the rest of the cast are being thrown into a new reality that is beyond ever dreamt by any of them.

However, Scott for some reason decided to downplay this awesome Shakespearism and hurried through it… and hurried on to extracting another sworn oath to secrecy that no matter how much stranger things get Horatio will never utter a word about the night. The ghost also joins in with a “Swear!” and Hamlet hurries his friends out, muttering “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” This time it was done better and the fear and a comic frustration reached through to the audience, who laughed nervously.

* * * *

Act 2, Scene 1

Another scene for Polonius to shine with his comic genius, as he schemes with Reynaldo on how to find out the true state of affairs with Laertes in Paris. The pride with which he devices his little scheme and the care with which he details it has the audience in splits throughout. I missed a few of the dialogues since the laughs drowned them out…

Then Ophelia comes in flustered about Hamlet’s changed behavior towards her. Polonius in all his wisdom connects the dots and concludes that Hamlet is crazy in love with Ophelia, and the thwarted love (since he was in opposition to it and had strictly instructed his daughter against it, who would never go against his word) was the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior. “The very ecstasy of love”, indeed. Polonius decides to pronto go to the king and bring his majesty up to speed on the matter.

Act 2, Scene 2

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their entrance! I was looking for some serious comic relief from them, but as it turns out I was to be a bit muted in my laughs for them, and consequently not so devastated to learn of their deaths later as I should have been. That is why the double act of these two had to be pulled off just right.

Claudius and Gertrude welcomes R & G and it immediately strikes the audience that one of the two is female (turns out to be G)! Now in my surprise, I forgot to notice if they changed Gertrude’s address which goes “Good gentlemen, he hath much talked of you.” I am pretty sure they must have… for the play acknowledged the femaleness of Guildenstern, and extracts some mild humor out of that as well whenever Hamlet seems to prefer G over R in his overtures. I wonder why this was done though, for part of the crucial thing about R & G was their interchangeability and some of the comedy comes from how the other characters never seem to know who is who. This made R & G blend into each other and become one – they had no individuality and one could not exist without the other.

In any case, I didn’t think it was a particularly great idea and felt it was a needless distraction – R & G would have worked better as a homogenous mass of sycophancy for me. This was one of the questions I would have liked to clarify with the cast and the director, given an opportunity (hint, hint!). In such a well thought out production, this can’t have been introduced without purpose. The purpose, if there was one, was unfortunately lost on me though.

R & G are escorted out and taken to Hamlet to begin their spying duties.

Polonius comes in with news of ambassadors from Norway and quickly launches into his more important news – about his discovery of the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.

The ambassadors talk to the King over teleconference and appears only on-screen. Heh, ya I thought it was pretty cool. Norway conveyed that Fortinbras will not be threatening Denmark but requested passage for him through Denmark to march across and attack Poland (to keep hothead Fortinbras occupied, one would assume). Claudius switches off the screen and turns to Polonius, it is time to discuss Hamlet.

And at this point Polonius delivers his master speech, a gem of brevity and perfection, the very paragon of the art of speaking to the point.

POLONIUS

This business is well ended.

My liege and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,

(Wight stretches these already tedious dialogues to their limits, teasing the audience with every pompous word)

Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief: your noble son is mad.

Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,

What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go.

GERTRUDE

More matter, with less art.

Polonius goes on for a while longer, reveling in his own words and finally gets round to reading out Hamlet’s letter.

He confides that he asked Ophelia to turn Hamlet away and from unreciprocated love poor Hamlet is now on the brink of lunacy. That is all, really. Nothing about his father’s death, or his Mother’s marriage in Polonius’ philosophy of Hamlet.

Gertrude, understandably, is skeptical if this can be the only cause…

So confident is Polonius that he goes on to say:

(points to his head and shoulders)

Take this from this if this be otherwise.

Polonius staked his life on his theory, and yes, he will pay with the same later… Bombastic to the end.

Polonius tries to engage Hamlet in conversation as he wanders in with a book, and from here on every encounter between Polonius and Hamlet is something to be cherished, and the audience laughed their head off every single time. Hamlet trolls Polonius mercilessly throughout, and Polonius in his earnestness rises above his sycophancy and shallowness – and we come to love him.

The rest of the scene is a riot. The Scott-Wight duo was magnificent, I am still laughing at their exchanges, reminds me of Jon Snow and Ser Davos, really. Forgive me, but really.

Meanwhile Polonius progresses from “He is far gone, far gone” to “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.” And as soon as he leaves Hamlet turns to us, the audience, comments on how tedious the fool was and laughs with us at Polonius. Ah, good times, good times.

Right on cue, the next set of tedious fools enter – R & G. Again, I forgot to check if they modified the “Good lads, how do you both?” to account for the female Guildenstern. Post a bit of inappropriate jesting about Lady Luck’s private parts, Hamlet delivers one of my favorite lines “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” R & G try to keep up with Hamlet’s skill with words, but Hamlet keeps soaring higher and higher, a king of infinite space. And suddenly after getting them all philosophical he tries to take them off-guard by interrogating them on what brings them to Elsinore. G finally admits they were sent for by Claudius and did not come of their own initiative.

Now this one scene is what I had imagined the most before going for the play. In a Guardian review I had read that the play employed CCTV cameras. Here is what I had imagined after reading that: I thought Hamlet had hacked access to CCTV cameras across the castle and hence knew most of the things going on, and were privy to most conversations. That to me explained his preternatural omniscience on display in these few scenes where Hamlet seems to be a step ahead of everyone else. Of course, it is because of his superior understanding of human nature and how people behave, but CCTV access to everyone would have been pretty cool too. Turns out my theory was wrong. Hamlet just knew, even in the era with technology. Oh well.

Once confirmed that his friends are there to betray him, Hamlet gives his ironic “What a piece of work is a man!” speech to R & G.

Somehow the conversation slips from that to the actors in the city and it immediately distracts Hamlet from his morbid thoughts about humanity. A bit of commentary about theater life follows.

Set of players enter.

Scott as Hamlet goes into seeming throes of ecstasy in meeting the players and I for a moment felt it was perhaps a bit too much acting there? But then who can question when a mad prince might choose to exhibit his mad genius. Maybe he had to convince R & G that he was crazy about the theater, crazy enough to get seriously involved with them for days on end.

Hamlet trolls Polonius a bit more as he comes in, entertains the audience further, and then turns his attentions back to the newly arrived actors.

The player launched into his long song about Pyrrhus, Hecuba and Priam, and as always at this point in the play, I zoned out for a bit and reflected on the acting and the presentation, etc, for once agreeing with Polonius as he objected that this is going a tad too long…

Then, towards the end of it, comes the moment of enlightenment for Hamlet, and Scott made sure that just in case the audience’s attention had wandered, it was brought back to focus intently on this moment. I salute him for this, for it allowed me to understand the significance of this moment and the song a lot better, after this.

As the player narrated Hecuba’s terrible cry on seeing her husband cut down, his eyes filled with tears and he flushed with the full strength of those emotions welling from Hecuba through to him. After asking if Murder of Gonzago can be played, Hamlet takes leave of everyone – clearly a plan is formed. And in a quick overhearing he lets us into the plan – He wonders how this player could force such emotions out of himself for nothing, for Hecuba – who is Hecuba to him?

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba

That he should weep for her? What would he do

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have?

He berates himself (reminiscent of a later self-beration much later in the play, that time comparing himself to soldiers getting ready for action for much smaller purposes) that he can’t summon enough anger for a real wrong when the player can summon so much for an imagined scene. In any case, soon we come to the crux of the thought – that “guilty creatures sitting at a play” (here Scott smiles and points at the audience, evoking nervous laughter from us, all guilty) if struck to the soul can be driven to confess their crimes, at least in their expression.

Hamlet decides to enact a play that will probe his Uncle’s conscience and see if he flinches. That will be the test.

In a flourish Scott exclaims,

The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

With the audience thrilled by the prospect, with goosebumps at that last delivery, the light comes on for a short break, leaving us to savor the way the plot had been hatched in his mind. Isn’t it just wonderful that our Hamlet doesn’t take the Ghost at his word and decides to confirm it for himself? The Ghost might think Hamlet is one equivocating weakling of a son, and even hamlet might berate himself for hesitating and procrastinating, but Hamlet is a modern man – he will not stand for “fake news” he will find out for himself, yeah? I kept repeating to myself: The play’s the thing , Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king; The play’s the thing , Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king; The play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. A earworm. Great.

* * * *

Act 3, Scene 1

A crowded stage. Claudius and Gertrude interrogating R & G. Polonius, Ophelia also present. It is a bit funny to see actors sitting around waiting for their turn to speak. Ophelia does some nice emo poses to pass the time. Claudius and Gertrude are informed about the play being planned by Hamlet and seem interested to attend.

Then Claudius asks the rest to leave for a bit of play acting of their own – as he and Polonius planned to have Hamlet run into Ophelia and look on to observe and see how Hamlet is coming along in his love-lunacy.

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet walks in with the iconic words, and as one the audience leans all the way into the stage, eager to not miss this one monologue, even at the risk of an architectural calamity.

After expressing disgust with himself and berating himself as a vile creature for being too cowardly, Hamlet seems to have gone further in his thoughts. Now he is questioning his own existence and worth. He wonders if it is worth the struggle that is life, isn’t it better to sleep, to die? But then what dreams may come in that sleep of death. That is when death gives us pause – when we wonder what will come after. And so choosing the known devil over the unknown, we shuffle on with our one long calamity of a life.

Scott utters this deliberately, slowly, giving us time to digest it. Remember, he had banished our fears of Shakespeare long ago, he had gotten us familiar, and now the investment is paying off. No one is afraid to engage with the full depth of the monologue – we let it seep into us, we feel the full morbidity and helplessness of the thought – To be, or not to be?, it is a question we all consider and conclude with Hamlet that to To not be is too scary, we too should plod along and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (including some petty outrages like inefficient legal system, Bangalore traffic and British food). Perhaps for the first time, the famous monologue feels like just another passing thought within us, something we can fully comprehend and then attach back to the play; a fully relatable thought. In place with the rest of the play. The couple next to me seemed to be completely taken aback that they got the whole thing at one go. We whispered to each other that this is some special kind of sorcery at work here.

To be, or not to be? That is the question—

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—

No more—and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished!

To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

Hamlet notices Ophelia and hushes himself, before he got too deep for his now well comprehending audience. Hamlet denies the letters and the gifts, again betraying omniscience (and CCTV hacking skills).

The conversation progresses through wordplay to hit on two strong notes:

I did love you once.

&

I loved you not.

And then crescendos in Get thee to a nunnery!

Scott screeches this, Hamlet has lost control and almost madly angry with himself tries to get this over with. I have never fully understood why Hamlet had to do this, and even this play couldn’t explain it to me. If there was true love here, was this necessary? I don’t think I have dreamt up enough philosophy to grasp what made this necessary, why Ophelia had to be driven to madness too. I suspect it is extreme paranoia that drives this or complete disillusionment with the world, either way two hearts are broken irredeemably in this one mad repeated scream.

I would have liked to ask the cast about their opinion on this as well – what drove Hamlet to this? (Hint, Hint)

What Claudius gets out of all this though is that Hamlet’s madness is nothing innocent like love-sickness, it is dangerous – and he decides to get him to England so that he cannot plot any further harm here in court. Polonius however sticks to his theory and proposes one more spying act, this time of an encounter of Hamlet and Mum. He had put his head on the line, and he is not lazy about proving his theory at exactly that cost.

Act 3, Scene 2

Hamlet/Shakespeare’s great education to the artists and players of his time and to posterity.

Scott does this with a lot of sincerity and with a hint of self-deprecation. This must be a difficult scene for any actor to pull off – presumption on display, having to instruct all actors ever on how to act, must take guts.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.

Overall I must report that this performance stuck well to Shakespeare’s maxims, and would merit his pleasure.

Horatio returns to stage after a long gap. Hamlet goes on to praise Horatio as the best man he knows and expresses his implicit trust in him. Again, this has always thrown me off – why not give the same credit to Ophelia? Is it because she “conspired” with the King and Polonius, and Hamlet somehow came to know a part of that? Is Horatio really the only one Hamlet felt worthy of trust (and eventually worthy of life…)? If Hamlet did indeed feel Ophelia betrayed him, I would have to disagree. Ophelia was clearly caught between her family and Hamlet and tried t keep both happy, alienating Hamlet in the process perhaps – but she never deliberately meant to cause him any harm. She was noncommittal to the plots of Polonius but she still went ahead with them, if only for show, and that was perhaps her mistake. Unfortunately, girls would do that – a best friend like Horatio might have been able to ignore his father for his friend, if placed in a similar situation.

Hamlet lets Horatio in on his plan to expose his uncle, to catch his conscience with the Play: Horatio and Hamlet will be watching Claudius closely during the Mousetrap and comparing notes thereafter. In this performance this ‘comparison of notes’ turns out in a nice manner, as we will see later.

Stage fills up again and then empties as quickly – this confuses me a bit since in my memory this should be one of the packed scenes of the play – with the full cast in attendance along with the players of the play-within-the-play. I always wondered how they pulled off such a packed stage with so much happening. In this particular performance an ingenious solution is presented:

The King and company go off the stage and are seated with us the audience (well, not exactly, but that is the representation) and all of us watch the play-within-the-play together. On stage thus we have only the Play that is being enacted and those players. The courtly audience remains off stage, thus freeing up space on stage.

However, everything key to the actual play happens then off stage, right? We have to observe the reactions of the courtly audience to the play that is being put on to expose them. For this what has been done is that the whole play has been made into a televised courtly performance – imagine the Oscars if you will, where the cameras keep alternating between the stage where the presenters are and the audience, trying to show us the expressions of the important members. In the same manner, here the play is going on, but the cameras keep coming to the audience, i.e. to the King, the Queen, Hamlet and the rest. And the camera visuals are available to us on the giant TV screens across the theater. So just as we watch the Mousetrap we can also see the royal mouses watching it.

Hamlet, of course, has got the video camera trained on Claudius for the bulk of the play.

Hamlet 3

For me this was a bit excruciating – I had to every moment make a choice between keeping my eyes on the play going on on-stage and the expressions displayed on the monitors of the off-stage actors. I tried flicking my eyes repeatedly between the two, but eventually gave up and let the play guide me. In spite of this I still admit that it was a great way to present this scene.

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The pantomime prologue-summary begins, to the accompaniment of music.

Gonzago is the Duke’s name (played by David Rintoul, who also plays the Ghost, for added effect!), and his wife is Baptista. The villain of the piece kills the king in exactly the way the Ghost had told Hamlet he was murdered. Polonius turns pale, stops the play and exits. The camera follows him down a flight of stairs. The actors on stage seem to be in a tableau as the king walks on to the stage, looks at the audience and announces that we will now have a 15 minute break. We all laugh and head out for refreshments, amused at Claudius himself announcing this momentous break. It also amused me that they took the interval in the midst of a scene, and the scene will resume after the interval. Risky, but nice. Applause.

* * * *

INTERVAL

After the break, we open to the sight of Hamlet and Horatio examining the King’s reactions to the play – they have access to the recorded footage of the King’s reactions – so they can “compare notes” a lot more easily than in olden times. Hamlet concludes that his visage is a portrait of guilt.

R & G arrive to inform Hamlet that the King and his Mother are upset, and his Mum wants to talk to him about his behavior. Hamlet chastises them for trying to manipulate him.

Polonius also arrives with the same purpose and is immediately subjected to more trolling, much to our pleasure.

Act 3, Scene 3

Claudius tells R & G that Hamlet is to be sent to England with them, this time with a lot more conviction and with some serious steel in his voice. Audience is clearly being allowed to guess at what it means to be sent to England here…

As Hamlet goes to his mother, Polonius is planning to hide behind the curtains and listen in. After informing the same to Claudius, Polonius leaves, leaving Claudius alone on stage. This is one of the rare moments the audience gets to see Claudius by himself, and immediately we are given access to his thoughts, not through a monologue but through a prayer, which is in effect another form of thought – addressed outwards, not inwards being the  difference.

In Macbethian fashion, Claudius laments the blood on his hands and wonders how to pray for his sins, probably the after-effect of being confronted with his own evil deed so publicly.

On stage is also Hamlet, who had never exited from his own last scene. He has a gun in his hand which he is pointing at Claudius throughout the scene, but always hesitating to shoot. Taking mad steps forward and then retracing. This is another innovation in the production, like with Hamlet being on stage during the Polonius-Ophelia talks. Here it seems as if Claudius and Hamlet can see each other, but not really – perhaps both imagine the other? I cannot be sure. Once Claudius’ monologue is over, Hamlet lets us know why he is not ending it all there. It is because his father went unrepentant, to hell, and he cannot allow Claudius to go to heaven, being killed in the act of repentance for his sins. It wouldn’t be revenge proper. No. He will kill him in the act of something horrible, like incest. Or, it was just more dilly-dallying. Take it as you please.

Act 3, Scene 4

Polonius hides, Hamlet enters to meet Gertrude in the great Freudian Oedipal scene. I sat tensed, wondering how this scene is going to work itself out. Another crucial make or break moment had arrived for Scott. Will he follow the maxim of using calm voices here also, or will Hamlet burst into a rage of sound and fury? Will it be quiet malice or mad rage, or perhaps violent assault? Possibilities for this scene are endless, and the version chosen affects the whole play more than anything else.

In the back and forth Hamlet yanks Gertrude sharply down to the bed to make her sit and also draws his pistol at the same time. At this Gertrude gasps out for Help and Polonius bursts out valiantly from the tapestries and is immediately shot dead. He collapses, to shocked silence from the audience. We had truly grown fond of the pompous fool. It felt like a moment of true tragedy, and we couldn’t forgive Hamlet for that, just as he himself wouldn’t.

Hamlet justifies his deed, and alienates the audience just that bit further:

A bloody deed? Almost as bad, good mother,

As kill a king and marry with his brother.

He then says he is going to wring his mothers heart with the truth and sets off on it. Hamlet shows the portraits of the two brothers and exhorts his mother how she could chose the lesser over the better. By this time Hamlet is like a child throwing a tantrum, his words on the edge of being incomprehensible, a boy who is so angry with his mother that he can hardly articulate. The audience smile nervously at each other at this performance, they are scared to see this version of Hamlet…

What devil possessed you to do it he shouts, pointing his gun at her, throwing her to the ground.

Nay, but to live

In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,

Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love

MAKING LOVE he shouts, uncontrollably, and in a fit of petulance he mounts his mother, enacting the humping that he could not get out of his imagination, and getting the Oedipal moment out of the way – potent enough to draw gasps but not central enough to overshadow the rest of the scene.

Gertrude pushes him and slides away, begging him to stop, aghast at his madness. Hamlet continues on about how the King was killed, and for a moment it felt like Gertrude started to believe her son, if for nothing else but due to the intensity of his emotion and conviction.

And then the Ghost enters in another flash of spectacular brilliance. Hamlet starts speaking to him unaware only he can see him, and Gertrude is now fully convinced that Hamlet is off his rocker and scared stiff herself.

I always liked to think that the Ghost appearing at this moment, perhaps in his imagination, is what stopped Hamlet from either killing his mother or going full Oedipal. And that is why the Ghost had to enter at that precise moment with his mother begging for mercy. But that psychological angle is not explored here, and that is okay, it is not my play.

A slightly calmer Hamlet forbids Gertrude from sharing Claudius’ bed tonight and exits dragging Polonius’ bloody body behind him, leaving bloodstains on the floor.

Short break for the audience after this harrowing scene while they get the blood stains out, music cues and soon the next Act begins.

* * * *

Act 4, Scene 1

Gertrude tells Claudius of Polonius’ death and Claudius clearly want to use this as justification for his England plans with R & G as Hamlet is now not only mad but violent and dangerous.

Act 4, Scene 2

Action progresses faster now, R & G try to get info about the corpse from Hamlet. Hamlet avoids, some humor even here by Scott.

Act 4, Scene 3

Another well executed scene with the highlight being when Hamlet replies that Polonius is at dinner when asked where he is – dinner of worms – Not where he eats, but where he is eaten! Morbid gallows humor plenty here.

R & G to carry Hamlet to England with a letter instructing his execution.

Act 4, Scene 4

Fortinbras asks permission for troop movement through Denmark via teleconf link. Small conversation between Hamlet and Norwegian captain about the pointlessness of war interjected. Hamlet also asks R & G to start without him, he will be there shortly (duh).

Hamlet looks at the spectacle of the army marching for a pointless piece of Polish land and exhorts himself to action too in another classic monologue:

He berates himself for his procrastination, wondering why it is that he says ‘I have to do this’ instead of having finished say “I have done it”. When men can rouse themselves to war and action over matters so trivial as a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, how can he not take action when he has such good cause – a father murdered and a mother defiled?

Hamlet’s pitch and anger rises as the monologue continues, reaching the fever pitch of earlier again… And again a nervous audience looks on at this spectacle of a man becoming a beast.

He says he has motive, means and the ability, yet he look on as men march to action, for a mere fantasy.

And then he roars out to us:

Oh, from this time forth,

My thoughts be bloody!

A chill passes down our collective spines as we ready ourselves for the blood bath that awaits us.

Act 4, Scene 5

Ophelia’s madness. Somehow I couldn’t connect with this much. I always liked Ophelia, but her madness after her lover rejects her and her father dies was just not real enough for me. I am heartless. And to don the critic’s hat, I don’t think Jessica Findlay quite carried it on this day. However, the songs did tug a bit at the old heartstrings, especially when she sang of Valentine’s day.

Meanwhile, Laertes, accusing Claudius of the murder of his father, comes like the flooding ocean to the court, leading a revolution of some sort? Where did a revolution spring from all of sudden, I always wonder? Did Shakespeare expect us to imagine in the space of five lines the impact upon the populace of all the workings of this mad family and that they would naturally want to overthrow such a regime? Polonius’ mysterious death with no funeral, etc. must have added fuel to this discontent… In any case, the rebellion remains incidental.

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Another son come to revenge his father’s foul murder on Claudius. Claudius was looking pretty tired of this, but he also knew he had a new instrument in his hands…

Ophelia enters and flings herself at Laertes and Laertes again looses himself in grief. Too much overt grief for the audience – could have been toned down a little for more effect – less art – I felt.

Claudius vows to Laertes that he will show him who is guilty of the murder and that the guilty party will be punished by death – i.e. Hamlet is going down.

Act 4, Scene 6

Hamlet’s letter reaches Horatio. Could have been a Facetime call really, I felt – maybe wi-fi on a pirate ship was too much to ask for.

Act 4, Scene 7

Laertes is convinced about the agent of his father’s murder. Letter from Hamlet arrives, and the play makes a point of showing us Gertrude’s expression noting the king’s surprise at receiving a letter from Hamlet. Claudius recruits Laertes as his pawn – in a new murder that is supposed to look like an accident. Laertes being a master at fencing, Claudius plans to arrange a fencing match between them with a sword with sharpened point dabbed with poison being used by Laertes. And a cup of poisoned drink as plan C just in case. A fool-proof plan, if ever there was one.

Gertrude brings more bad news for Laertes – Ophelia is drowned.

* * * *

Act 5, Scene 1

The gravediggers! I was super pumped for this scene and for Yorick’s introduction. It disappointed a teeny bit, I have to report. Some more spooky music, darkness and bingo a big hole has appeared in the middle of the stage. Gravediggers are inside the hole, chit chatting about some casual morbid stuff. Gravediggers seem to be singing quite a bit which I don’t remember from the play – and it also seems like a few dialogues have been cut from this scene, but I can’t be certain. Hamlet and Horatio somehow wander in, though I have never figured out why they ended up there. Hamlet approaches the grave and the gravedigger inside who is singing and causally throwing or breaking skulls. Hamlet engages in a bit more banter about death, his fav topic.

18.-Barry-Aird-Gravedigger_credit-Manuel-Harlan-1

Then, funnily enough, Hamlet meets his match in wordplay in the gravedigger – goes to show that being Hamlet is all about how morbid your humor can get and how casual your outlook on life is consequently. The literal gravedigger throws Hamlet further off stride, much to the delight of the audience. A mild joke at the expense of the English here as Hamlet asks why Hamlet was sent to England if he is mad (the gravedigger knows not who he speaks to) and the Gravedigger says it is because in England everyone is as mad as Hamlet is – waves of laughter from a delighted audience, for once I didn’t join in.

Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester’s skull, comes out for display!

The royal company enters the grave putting an end to Hamlet’s ruminations on Alexander and Caesar and their parallels with Yorick’s skull.

Ophelia is buried. Laertes  jumps into the grave to hug her one last time and at that point Hamlet comes forward. Immediate fighting breaks out between them. Horatio tries to separate them but Hamlet, still mad, shouts this is an issue he can settle only by a fight to the finish. Which issue?

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers

Could not with all their quantity of love

Make up my sum.

That is the issue. That is how much he loved the girl he drove to suicide. Somehow that touched me – this mad boy is tortured and lost. Scott brings this home with this one line. Hamlet however makes a getaway before he can be captured. Claudius exhorts Laertes to stick to the plan they had hatched and be patient.

Act 5, Scene 2

We are winding to the close now, the audience is fully into it. The play is fully established, every character has been developed, there is not much scope for anything to go wrong now. I have fully settled into it, at ease with the play, ready to enjoy the gory climax as much as possible. Though I have misgivings that in a world with guns, swords wont be as terrifying…

The next famous line is about to be delivered: Hamlet advises Horatio that sometimes acting rashly and on impulse works out better than well laid plans,

and that should teach us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will

What prompted this? Hamlet’s accidental discovery of the letter carried by R & G, on the way to England. Hamlet glibly tells of how he wrote a new letter to England, stating: He should the bearers put to sudden death.

That was it, the rest was implied. The bearers R & G thus perish. Audience might have felt a pang, but I feel it was more a pang for Hamlet than for R & G – for Hamlet to be doing such deeds, to have reached a point where he is capable of it with such efficiency. The emo boy we saw has come a long way, and it pains us.

Horatio says Claudius will find out soon of this, but Hamlet has the interim to do what he can about this evil king that casts a shadow over Denmark. At this moment Osric arrives to inform Hamlet of the betting match upon the fencing match and to invite him for the farce. After getting trolled for a bit he manages to deliver his message. Hamlet seems to agree to the match, perhaps not taking it too seriously?

Horatio is worried Hamlet can’t stand up to skilled Laertes. Andrew Scott looks at the audience with a smile as he says that I do not think so. Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice. The audience laughs aloud as they realize how absurd that sounds. Hamlet gets a sinking feeling about the match, but contrary to his speech earlier about instincts and a divinity that shapes our ends he chooses to ignore it. So the scene has a symmetry to it overall.

But this leads to another favorite line of mine, this time against superstitions:

If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

Now the stage descends into darkness, with heraldic music playing loudly. When light comes back on we see the two contestants getting into fencing clothes and cameramen descending on them just like at an Olympic arena, zooming in on theirs and their teams’ expressions. The big TV screens showcase the nervous countenances in full detail.

After a quick gentlemanly, though slightly rubber tongued apology from Hamlet, the match is about to get underway. Claudius’ plan is that if Hamlet is getting ahead he will feed him some poisoned wine to even the odds in his own favor.

The match starts and the TV screens now display the scoreline boldly 0-0! This is fun I thought, and got ready to enjoy the show. As a bonus, we had more Dylan to take us through the fencing match, sometimes even rising above the dialogues.

Hamlet 1 – Laertes 0. Claudius tries to get Hamlet to take some poisoned wine…

Hamlet says he will drink after the round.

hamlet-play-2017-harold-pinter-theatre-700wx457h-1490719136

Hamlet 2 – Laertes 0!

Gertrude comes forward to wipe Hamlet’s brow and then picks up the poisoned goblet to drink to his health. The quasi-dance of all the characters moving across the stage is well choreographed and unlike the earlier population dense scene this time all the actors are on stage, sharing it, hence requiring some delicate acting.

Claudius frantically tries to get Gertrude to not drink from it. But it was too late, she had drunk the poison!

In this production, Hamlet retires to his corner and the match was in pause when Laertes reaches out illegally and slashes Hamlet’s hand and draws blood with his poisoned blade. Hamlet ends up with Laertes’s rapier after a scuffle and wounds him as well. Both poisoned now.

Effective score? Hamlet 1 – Laertes 1. Ha!

Laertes collapses, Gertrude faints crying out the drink was poisoned – clearly in her dying moment she realized everything, understood her mistakes and wanted to save Hamlet at least. Icke fully absolves Gertrude of any potential guilt here, possibly robbing the play of some worthy possibilities… Laertes confesses to the whole plan and outs the King – The king, the king’s to blame.

HAMLET: The blade poisoned! Then get to work, poison!

And he stabs Claudius with the poisoned blade as well. Then forces him to drink from the same cup as his mother. End of the evil Dane.

Laertes also dies.

And now things get a bit weird for me – I regret to report that the ending really didn’t work for me. Let me try to describe its best I can:

Probably this dialogue of Hamlet is taken literally by the director:

HAMLET

Heaven make thee free of it. I follow thee.—

I am dead, Horatio.

Before Hamlet dies the backside of the stage opens and is revealed to be Heaven, with dancing angels, etc. Each of the dead actors are raised up into heaven (including Claudius mind you, there was no space for a Hell on the stage really) – they graciously flutter to their respective posts and occupy their positions in the heaven that has opened up there. Even Ophelia, Polonius, et al are also there.

This is set up slowly before Hamlet can deliver his dying lines so there is a long pause where the audience has to wait for Heaven to arrange itself, with slight unease, wondering if it was really necessary.

Hamlet asks Horatio to stay on in this harsh world for a while more to tell his story and to clear his memory, while he. having resolved his own to be or not to be, moves on to heaven. Horatio is left the last man standing.

The rest is silence. (Dies).

Heaven closes around Hamlet and then the audience is treated to the rude TV footage of Fortinbras announcing his plans for Denmark and for Hamlet’s honorary burial.

It was almost perfect, but the ending could have been a bit more tragic. A stage full of bodies over which the curtain descends seem a more fitting end to Denmark than a well populated Heaven with chorus singing as it closes gently. But the audience is more than willing to forgive this lack of such devastating tragedy as the play closes. Scattered applause starts to erupt, and as the cast comes out in their heavenly clothing to receive the applause it soon becomes a torrent of applause raining down on them. Then, a few seconds later, Andrew Scott joins them and the torrent becomes thunder as every single member of audience rises from their seat to make known their roaring appreciation. Scott soaks it all in like a gladiator in the midst of a great Roman arena. In a few choreographed movements the cast acknowledge us again and again, giving us a chance to sate our unending appetite for raining down applause.

Once it finally dies down, but not before one final eruption for Scott who takes the stage alone, we all collect ourselves and sit down, whispering to each other adjectives that barely described the play. As the audience prepares to leave, Horatio comes out and requests for a moment of our attention, which is gladly given. An announcement is made that the cast will come down in a few minutes for a 15 minute Q & A session and interested members can stay back. Half the audience immediately sits back down and settles in for a slightly longer night. The play had been almost 4 hours in the playing, an epic by any means, and we were game to discuss it late into the night if need be.

* * * *

Q & A Session with the Cast

One by one the cast comes back on stage and occupies the chairs placed for them and Horatio takes up the role of show manager. He asks us to raise our hands to ask questions, and to ask only if picked by him.

The first lucky member of the audience manages to thrill across the first question:

Disclaimer: Questions and answers are nowhere near verbatim and is closer to what I got out of the exchange than what might have actually gone down. Given I am penning this down a few days after the performance night, we need to allow room for some memory lapses as well.

Q 1. Given that your two popular performances, one as Moriarty and one as Hamlet, are both of tortured, genius, mad men, how would you compare the two? (Or something along these lines, I hope the audience member who asked the question would pardon if I missed out on parts of it)

A: Question being directed to Scott, he pretty much directly gets into the core differences between Moriarty and Hamlet and in doing so provides the audience with a key to interpreting the performance he had just given us. He explains that Moriarty comes to him as a fully formed character with certain traits – of madness, genius and a tendency to chaos, perhaps – he just has to stay true to these traits.

Whereas in Hamlet the traits has to develop internally and believably so. He has to go from sad brilliant man to a brilliant genius to a mad genius to a mad blood-thirsty genius, and various combinations in between. Throw into the mix – passionate lover, dedicated son, loyal friend, disillusioned friend, etc. and the range of emotions to be expressed is vast and very very challenging. Through all this, for Andrew, it is one aspect that is key to the changes in Hamlet’s character (Andrew seems to accept that Hamlet is indeed mad and is not feigning madness): The madness is a result of grief that is not allowed full sway. A young man not allowed to grieve slips into madness, and it is the grief that forges the various elements of Hamlet that we see henceforth. The early court scenes take special significance in the light of this discussion. Scott might have spoken about a few more things but these are the points that stayed most with me. All in all, there really is no comparison. Ha, am I glad of this answer!

Q 2. If I recollect correctly the second question was basically whether the actors have any favorite scenes in a play full of so many outstanding scenes. There might also have been an aspect of the question about the use of technology on stage and how/whether that impacted certain key scenes, and if so how?

A: A few of the cast members pitched in with their favorite scenes, but what stayed with me was Andrew’s discussion about why they decided to fully humanize the Ghost. Hamlet could touch him, feel him, and hold his hands when they spoke. He says they wanted to make the father-son aspect fully realized and allowing direct contact and a personal moment between the two seemed the best way to do it. The technology medium adapted might have stood in the way of this, so the Ghost goes beyond all of that and manifests as flesh in front of Hamlet. When you add in the fact that in this production Hamlet is indeed assumed mad, then this also shows the extent of his hallucinations and his grief…

Q 3. A lot of you have long breaks in between two scenes sometimes, during the course of which you have to go off stage. What do you guys do off stage as the drama progresses? Do you stay in character, do you try to relax a bit, or do you netflix and chill, especially when it is such a long production?

A: The entire cast got pretty interested in this question. I was also pretty interested since if answered by a few of them this would give us a real glimpse behind the curtains. I thanked silently whoever asked the question (A shout-out to you, kind soul), and started following the conversation amongst the cast in response.

Horatio jokingly immediately pointed at Laertes who leaves court and the stage in Act 1 Scene 3 and does not return till Act 4 Scene 5 towards the end of the play, hours later, and says Laertes might be the best one to answer that since he has maximum time off-stage. The whole cast laughed, there was even a quo that in the time he had off-stage he could actually have gone to France and come back! Laertes finally got a say: no he cant stay in character that long, instead he tries to relax and just stay in touch with the action on stage. Someone else from the cast also joined in and said that yes, they can’t stay in character outside for too long since that would make it too tense. They have to get off character once off the stage, but stay ready.

Laertes came up with a good metaphor – he said, imagine you are going on a long distance flight – you wont be aware of the flight all the while, you might sleep watch a movie listen to music and then become aware of the flying itself only occasionally. But throughout you are in the flight – you never stop flying! Then Andrew pitched in by saying it is important to keep things a bit light, you can’t get too serious. “Without life and liveliness there is no tragedy, there has to be plenty of life on stage” – and the only way to have liveliness and life on stage is to preserve energy especially mental energy off stage by saying relaxed. Wight also acknowledged the same – there was another funny metaphor I believe, but it skips my mind. Gertrude pitched in that in any case every player has an audio piece or something so they are following the play off stage at all times. Overall it was an interesting discussion. The audience as well as the cast seemed to truly enjoy it.

Q 4. I believe this question was along the lines of how important is a play like this to you guys on a personal level. The questioner said the question is an open one – i.e. any of the cast can answer it.

A: The cast looked at each other waiting for a volunteer. Finally Ophelia started off. It was a touching moment. She talked about how she had been struggling with an eating disorder and depression. She talked about how the play helped her find herself during a crucial time. About how it filled with meaning so many empty areas inside her. We could see in retrospect how much she poured into her role as we talked and all we could do to acknowledge was some meager applause when she finished. But it was an intimate and brave moment.

We had exceeded the 15 minutes, but everyone was having a good time so Horatio said he will take one more question. From the hundreds of hands, including mine, he decided to pick one, this time from the Balcony. Thank you, the lady blurted out as if she had given up hope and was very pleasantly surprised to be called on. She took a moment to collect herself and asked a fantastic final question, to Andrew Scott again. Yes, we as an audience was biased, but I am sure the rest of the cast will forgive us for being dreamy-eyed fan boys of Scott for one night.

Q 5. The question went like this: We noticed that at moments of great rage, as during the confrontation with his mother, you seem to be throwing a tantrum, almost child-like in its intensity and lack of self-control. Those scenes reminded me of how my child behaves towards me when in a fit of rage. Was that deliberate? Were you trying to show that due to the circumstances and perhaps the madness a regression to the child had happened within Hamlet and all normal reservations that keep us behaving properly had fallen off? Andrew didn’t get the second part of the question, and she repeated if what Andrew was trying to show was that a combination of madness, grief and the presence of his mother, caused a regression to a child….

A: Andrew got it this time and asked whether she meant that at those moments filters were not there: that is, we were seeing Hamlet without the normal social filters that preserve the inner I from being exposed. She nodded and he continued with his answer. Clearly he was thinking through it, it was a good question since it addressed the few scenes which the audience would have been most uncomfortable with, and those which a bad critic could easily dismiss as overacting. But this question forced us to reexamine any impressions we had of those scenes of rage and “overacting” – there might be a method to the madness after all.

In fact it was such a good question that it required acknowledgment more than explanation. Andrew acknowledged it, touched upon the grief-madness connection once again, but finally accepted that yes, the grief and the madness had made Hamlet behave like a child. He also says that once this was let out and the grief had an outlet through this raw expression, Hamlet calms down a little, a bit of the madness has fallen away… The venting was crucial, just like it is for children.

He goes on to say that, in fact, a characteristic of most mad people is this loss of filters – they become too raw, too real for the rest of society. The layers of custom that makes us look like safe & rational beings, which we are far from being, comes off in such people, which is why they evoke fear. Hamlet does both – he becomes a feral force, but the filters coming off exposes his humanity and also his genius and as we wonder looking at him ‘What a piece of work is a man’ we learn a lot about what each of us is without filters. We fear hamlet, we love hamlet, we know Hamlet is doomed, just as we know about ourselves. A mirror up to nature, even in a scene that is mostly on the brink of being out of control.

The Q & A ends.

One final round of applause, adoring looks at the cast members, and then we were clambering off, hoping to catch the last trains and tubes back home so that we can get some time to savor the experience further, before sleep and perchance dreams engulf us.

Curtains.

Book your Hamlet tickets, playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2nd September 2017.

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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Book Reviews, Books, Movies, Theater Reviews

 

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Pirates of the Powerpoint

How to Lie with StatisticsHow to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

My Rating★★★★☆

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Pirates of the Powerpoint

Darrell Huff uses a simple, but effective literary device to impress his readers about how much statistics affect their daily lives and their understanding of the world.

He does this by pretending that the book is a sort of primer in ways to use statistics to deceive, like a manual for swindlers, or better, for pirates. He then pretends to justify the crookedness of the book in the manner of the retired burglar whose published reminiscences amounted to a graduate course in how to pick a lock and muffle a footfall: The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self-defense.

This keeps the book interesting and entertaining, though for anyone even partly trained in statistics, it has very little educational value.

Of course, the title of this book and Huff’s little charade would seem to imply that all such operations are the product of intent to deceive. The intelligent reader would be skeptical — it is the unfortunate truth that it not chicanery much of the time, but incompetence. On the other hand, Huff is pretty clear that the ‘errors’ if that is what they are always seem to come down on the side of the interested party. As long as the errors remain one-sided, he says, it is not easy to attribute them to bungling or accident.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

After being fellow pirates for much of the book, in the concluding chapter Huff finally lets go if his pet charade and faces up to the more serious purpose of the book: explaining how to look a phony statistic in the eye and face it down; and no less important, how to recognize sound and usable data in that wilderness of fraud to which the previous chapters have been largely devoted. He lays down some thumb rules, which in the end comes come down to asking intelligent questions of the stats, especially of the conclusions. Asking such questions require the readers to be aware of the tendency of stats to mislead and to not be dazzled by the numbers.

Huff’s book is primarily an attempt to pull down the high estimation automatically awarded to anybody willing to quote numbers. It is a fun evening read for the expert, who may then roll his eyes and say that there is nothing of real value in the book. But as its popularity attests to, it seems to be an important book for the lay reader, just by serving a reminder that the pirates are still out there — wielding their charts.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

***

I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

India: The Emerging GiantIndia: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

My Rating★★★★☆

After having read Sen (Development as Freedom) and having been greatly influenced by his ideas, it was only fair to Bhagwati that I read one of his books next. But I decided to start with his collaborator’s work before moving into his own. Having read Dasgupta‘s views on this recently helped in this decision.

Am planning to be reading the two new works by the contending clans next…

In this book Panagariya offers an analytic account and interpretation of the major economic developments in postindependence India along with a detailed discussion of where the policies currently stand and a road map of the future reforms necessary to accelerate and sustain growth.

The principal problem with such a specific and policy oriented book that is grounded on empirical data than on any purely ideological or theoretical grounds is that the stats need to be updated every two years or so to maintain relevance, not just of the recommendations but of the argumentative underpinnings as well.

I am tempted to write a detailed review on the policy recommendations and the outlines provided by Panagariya but I have to refrain till I catch hold of a decent book with a more recent treatment.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics by Henry Hazlitt

Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic EconomicsEconomics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics by Henry Hazlitt

My Rating★★★☆☆

 

This is a true ‘Economics or Dummies’ book. It can be useful in case you want something handy to bang over an economic nit-wit’s head on short notice. Only such a dummy would be unable to puncture your simplistic arguments or need them in the first place. Beyond that, it is hard to envisage much use for this volume, whether for serious discussion or for serious reflection. So if the initial bang was not good enough and if you pack no other arsenal, you might as well get out of there, and fast. This failing is primarily for want of breadth of scope and an explicit avoidance of addressing possible arguments.

After all, any book that promises to redue an antire discipline to ‘one lesson’ should not expect to have much more efectiveess than a poorly aimed sledge hammer.

Of course, there is a case for reading a book like this. Firstly, it might have been useful and even an essential book back then. Textbooks lack bite. Sometimes a book needs to come along that takes a point of view and is not shy of an argument, and of drilling in a single pov to the point of exhaustion. Which is probably why this book has lasted 50 odd years and is still only moderately outdated.

But to a modern student, such an unqualified approach can only seem like sophistry. He is too jaded to believe in panaceas.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & DiscoveryThe Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh

My Rating★★★★☆

What was that Mr. Ghosh? An attempt at a new genre? A bold stroke at creating a uniquely Indian view on science and how it would have been if science research was driven by mystics and cults? A spi-sci-fi book?

***Spoiler Alert*** . It is a pity that all the science falls flat the moment it wanders beyond the known and the proven. It could have been so much better. However, because Ghosh keeps all the science strictly to the unreliable Murugan, it seems acceptable or at least pardonable – even when it is utter nonsense, we can take it as a man’s eccentricities and carry on in the ride he has created for himself.

If the narrator had not climbed aboard the same train for the ride, not to mention adding the unnecessary ghost train (or did I miss its significance all together?) and the comic book ending, I would have given the book an additional star to complete a fiver – it entertained me that much, and when unexpected entertainment finds you, it is exhilarating. The book under-delivered on literary merit but over-delivered on pure fun and that works, sometimes.

I fully expect it to be the worst of Ghosh’s works but I also know that I will not approach anything by him with the faint dread-steeped respect with which we approach most modern literary giants for the first time.

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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations: A New TranslationMeditations: A New Translation by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marcus Aurelius must have been a prolific reader. He sure was a prolific note-taker, for these meditations are surely his study-notes(?- after all he was a ‘philosopher’ from age 12). I don’t know of the publishing system at the time but where are the detailed footnotes and references? Marcus Aurelius is quite a wise man or at least he read enough wise men. He sure nailed it as far as boring a reader is concerned. No better way to establish your book’s wisdom quotient.

I am being needlessly caustic of course(do note my rating above). The book is quotable in almost every page and is good to dip in to now and then, you might well find an aphorism that fits the mood just right every time. And that is why the book is a classic and so well-loved.

Don’t read it as a scholar, you will end up like this reviewer. As I said earlier – He is like the wisdom of ages. Aargh 🙂 Not that it is all bad – it is like reading an old uncles’s notes after he has been preaching to you all your life.

Good that I am a stoic too. All ills are imaginary. Yes.

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Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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