October 24, 2015
The British government-funded cultural establishment’s fawning and flattering but insincere attitude toward popular culture and the demotic was shown once again in a recent production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the Prince.
The text of the play was considerably hacked about, but of course it is always shortened in performance because, if not shortened, it would take about five hours to perform. No doubt the choice of which passages to cut will never please everyone, but I and many others could not help noticing with displeasure the omission of Polonius” famous lines addressed to his son, Laertes, as he departs for university:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
Why, we may ask, were these lines omitted? Could it be coincidence that the National Theatre is entirely dependent on government subsidy, a government that itself runs the highest deficit in the Western world, and that the principal political controversy in the country concerns its attempts to reduce that deficit? Polonius” speech from which these lines were omitted is generally taken to be pompous and ridiculous precisely because it consists of truisms dressed up in sententious language. But truisms are truisms because they are true: Thus it is true that loan oft loses both itself and friend (vide Greece) and borrowing does dull the edge of husbandry (vide Greece). This is not necessarily a message that people dependent for their livelihood on subsidies from profligate borrowers would want bruited abroad.
There were other cuts and changes that irritated me. Hamlet’s line “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery,” spoken to Guildenstern, who has been sent by the King to try to discover what Hamlet’s motivation is, was omitted in order to save a couple of seconds, though in fact it is an important, even crucial, line because it suggests that Hamlet is mysterious not only to others but to himself, and thus that full self-understanding will forever evade Mankind.
Far more disturbing was the appearance of Horatio in the first scene. He looked like a degenerate youth just arrived at a bus station after an overnight journey during which he was smoking dope, dressed in a checked shirt rolled up to his elbows and with a canvas backpack. He was heavily tattooed right up to the sides of his neck, with a spider’s web around one of his elbows and his forearms covered with various idiotic designs. What was the point of all this? To demonstrate the universality of Hamlet or the universality of tattoos (the latter approaching a statistical truth in some quarters)? What did such distraction add?
For much of the play, Hamlet wears a David Bowie T-shirt. Why? Is it to insinuate that there is no real difference between high and popular culture? He also wears a kind of shabby black tailcoat with the word KING daubed in rough letters and white paint on the back, a crude and unnecessary, indeed utterly implausible, reminder that Claudius has usurped the throne on which Hamlet should rightfully sit. The production assumed that the audience was incapable of appreciating or understanding emotions evoked by the words and poetry unless underscored or accompanied by extravagant gesture. There was much sawing of the air, precisely as Hamlet asks the actors come to Elsinore not to do. When Gertrude says, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain,” the words, properly delivered, require no accompaniment; indeed any accompaniment detracts from their power. It is one of Shakespeare’s glories, after all, that he can both convey and evoke the most soul-shaking emotions in a few simple words.
In short, it was a crude production for an audience that was assumed to be itself crude. This is not to say that none of the actors were good: Claudius, for example (Ophelia’s diction left much to be desired). But there was so much misdirection that no thespian talent could redeem it.
It was appropriate, in a way, that Hamlet should hold up his hands in the midst of the applause for him at the end of the performance to ask for quiet and to make an unctuous appeal to the audience on behalf of the children of Syria: or rather, on behalf of the Save the Children Fund’s appeal for the children of Syria, which is not quite the same thing.