Some thoughts on a Hamlet production

I saw a production of Hamlet by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Exeter last week. Actually it was routine stuff, with no particular vision or agenda, but any production of this play will make the audience think. This piece – more a reflection on the play than a review of the production – picks up on two things that were in my mind during the performance.

Firstly, surveillance. There’s plenty that’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but one characteristic of its rottenness is the way in which everybody at court is spying on everybody else. It’s curious that this happens in a play perhaps best know for its use of soliloquy – that preeminent performance of privacy and interiority – but it’s undeniable. The drama has been set in motion by Hamlet’s uncle creeping up on his brother, the king, while he sleeps. Hamlet himself later creeps up on his uncle while he prays. Polonius is clownish enough but also just kind of creepy, spying on anyone who matters at court and employing spies to keep an eye on his son. It’s worth reflecting on what surveillance does to a culture – here the culture of the court – and to individuals. Hamlet can’t trust anybody, and resorts to opaque, riddling speech. Ophelia, meanwhile, is just watched and watched, accorded less privacy than anyone else. No wonder she goes mad.

Secondly, Fortinbras. In our film on Hamlet, Paulina Kewes has some good things to say about Fortinbras and the play’s relation to the 1603 Jacobean succession. Fortinbras can certainly be played as heroic, assuming power at the end of the play with a commitment to honouring the dead and establishing order. Denmark needs a new ruler, after all. But I thought this production got him right, presenting him as a sinister outsider hovering on the outskirts of the play’s view. The point seems to be that the Danes are so self-absorbed with their family traumas that they can barely see the threat that Fortinbras poses. The Danish people – those unfortunate enough to be governed by this rabble – get perhaps a single mention in the play. And they get left with Fortinbras.

Andrew McRae