Theatre review: The Globe's Hamlet on DVD
"The play's the thing" says Hamlet, the main device by which he intends to prick the conscience of the king and learn the truth about his uncle's involvement in the murder of his father. The play is very much the thing as far as Michelle Terry is concerned, choosing Hamlet alongside As You Like It as her first play taking over in 2018 as artistic director at the Globe. Terry would you imagine would want to set her ideas for the theatre apart from the controversial tenure of Emma Rice, whose stay there was cut short after disagreements about the role of the Globe and whether a Shakespeare play performed there should be as close to the original as possible or allowed to be a modern day theatrical experience. She sets out her agenda clearly in Hamlet, but whether it will be a successful venture is still uncertain.
Taking on the role of Hamlet herself is very much a statement of intent from Terry then but perhaps not one that has any gender issues to raise other than further proof (as also seen recently with Ruth Negga) that there's no reason why a woman can't play the title role as well as a man. On the other hand it's clear that the idea of traditional performance is very much back on the agenda (obviously otherwise why remove Emma Rice?), and as far as can be determined from this production, the idea of the play being the thing, rather than an idea imposed on it by the director, appears to also be part of the plan. There are many ideas and themes that can be drawn from Hamlet, but why not let audience derive that from the play itself and let its performance in the unique and close to authentic location of the Globe speak for itself?
Another part of Terry's vision for the 'under new management' regime at the Globe, which in some ways taking it back closer to Shakespeare's way of working there with The Lord Chamberlain's Men, is to establish a troupe of the same 12 actors for both plays. Once crucial difference, seen necessary for contemporary audiences (but applied to Shakespeare more than anyone else it seems) is to have equal male/female representation. That idea of democratisation is also applied to the directing of the plays, where ideas can be discussed and introduced by the performers rather than made to fit to a predetermined vision of a director. Whether this idea bears fruit in later productions remains to be seen, but it doesn't bring anything of note to the 2018 Globe production of Hamlet, which it has to be said, for all the niggles and objections one might have had to some of her ideas, is much less adventurous and interesting than Emma Rice's work there (Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream).
With direction credited to Federay Holmes and Elle While, as far as Hamlet goes there are evidently concessions and compromises that have to be made. Although it can run in full length to 4 hours, Hamlet rarely does, and this cut of the play runs to 2 hours 30 minutes, but that's not unusual either; it rarely means sacrificing anything important, although it could be said to leave little room for developing any of the substantial themes in the play. What is most notably cut is the play-within-the-play, 'The Murder of Gonzago,' and that is something one would think is essential. It's indeed the play that is the thing, central to the purpose of the drama as well as the theme of people performing and playing roles. It's not so much cut here as reworked and simplified, the play reduced to a dumb show, as the reactions of the king and Hamlet are seen as far more important than an overacted melodrama. It remains a tense and central scene, attesting to the power of drama - but it does seem to detract somewhat from one of the multiple levels Hamlet works on.
There are good performances here however that make this production worthwhile. James Garnon always finds something new to bring to the many Shakespeare roles I've seen him play at the Globe and he brings good expression of anger, conflict and concern as the King, succeeding in making him act and behave like a human, albeit a deeply flawed one. Michelle Terry gives a lively, almost manic performance as Hamlet, but doesn't seem to have the necessary gravitas of being pushed towards madness with method. There is nonetheless really good interplay between Terry and Garnon, particularly the scene following the slaying of Polonius. Playing a spirited Laertes Bettrys Jones also brings a charge to her interaction with the other performers. And even though Shubham Saraf looks ridiculous as pretty lady Ophelia, a male in this role in some ways being an unnecessary distraction, his performance is superb and should win any doubters over.
There's a lot to like in the casting and performances, in the gender-blind and gender-equal casting, and more than just fine individual performances there is a good sense of ensemble work here that also suggests that the close-knit troupe works well (something that the RSC also employ successfully in each of their seasons), but with all the potential that there is in Hamlet, it's disappointing that this production doesn't have the kind of impact it ought to have. Few of its themes or strengths, its philosophy or politics really come through. There's a lack of emphasis on ideas, a lack of a singular vision in direction. For other Shakespeare plays this might prove to be an interesting return to play to the traditional strengths of the Globe, but Hamlet is such a play that it should speak to you, should astound you, should reveal new facets every time you view it. This is a good production that builds to a strong conclusion but for one of the greatest plays ever written, good is really not good enough.
The DVD release of the Globe's 2018 Hamlet from Opus Arte is region-free and in NTSC format for international compatibility. Although the inevitably results in some loss of resolution and inconsistent colour definition when filmed under the conditions of changing from natural light to some artificial lighting in an open air theatre, the transfer has no notable issues and presents the recorded live performance well. The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and the dialogue is always clearly audible. English subtitles are included. Other than a Cast Gallery there are no extras or interviews, although the booklet contains a synopsis and a look at the qualities that can be gained from playing Hamlet at the Globe in an essay by Farah Karim-Cooper.