Joanna Alpern reviews Hamlet: Cut to the Bone and Macbeth: Sliced to the Core, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews (4 and 5 October 2011)
Hamlet as a play is already somewhat skewed through Hamlet’s eyes, and seeing it performed as a one-man show definitely amplified this. The other characters were often reduced merely to Gertrude’s mourning veil or Claudius’ army jacket, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even appearing as sock puppets (very amusingly); although this did highlight Hamlet’s symbolic perceptions of them as figures of disguise, tyranny and betrayal respectively. The surreal mood music also created a dream-like atmosphere and instilled the impression that the action was in fact going on solely in Hamlet’s mind, as if the mad Danish prince himself was acting out his own thoughts before us.
It did not have quite the same effect in Macbeth, perhaps because it is an arguably less internal play where the other characters are not quite so sidelined. Having said this, it was very interesting to see actor David Keller simultaneously take on the roles of both the witches and Macbeth, switching between a man’s pleading questioning, a quasi-alien drawl and a sinisterly babyish singsong. It seemed to be suggesting that Macbeth was either wholly possessed by the witches, or that they were in fact the creations of his own mind.
Some interesting directorial choices were made with the set and the props as well. A coffin-sized chest was laid out in the centre of the stage for first Hamlet’s ghost to emerge from and later on for Ophelia to be buried in, giving the stage an even bleaker atmosphere and allowing the theme of death to have a constant presence. Also notable was Macbeth’s witches eerily drawing the play to a close by laying a limp puppet on a chair and presenting the audience with the new King of Scotland.
The quality of the RSC actor David Keller on the other hand, was pretty poor as he rushed through his lines, evidently concentrating more on changing from character to character than acting with any feeling, alongside reciting some of the most memorable soliloquies in the English language more quietly than the two old ladies whispering together in the audience. He clearly enjoyed playing a pot-belly-scratching Polonius, a sexually perturbed Hamlet sniffing the incestuous sheets and painfully prolonging the puppets’ smooch in The Mousetrap, and a guttural, brawling porter opening an imaginary door with screeching sound effects that sent the schoolchildren in the second row into fits of giggles.
There was also much amiss in the female characters. Ophelia – arguably the character closest to Hamlet in experience and affection – was passed over in ridiculously high-pitched slapstick. I could have accepted this as fitting in with the idea of the play as a presentation of Hamlet’s own point of view (which is at times highly misogynistic), if Keller had not played the witches in the exact same voice the very next day. This lack of originality was also echoed in the shared black scarf, utilised as Gertrude’s veil and Lady Macbeth’s shawl for no apparent artistic reason, by both weakly-played women.
All in all, these were ambitious productions with insightful touches that ultimately lacked talent.
Image credit – Jon Spira, courtesy of Simon Fielder Productions