Advent Calendar Day 9: Hamlet!

Marcellus:
[…]Some say that ever, ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Horatio:
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
[…]

Hamlet, I.1.181-188.

2009 filmed version of the RSC production of Hamlet dir. Greg Doran; I.1. Peter de Jersey as Horatio; Keith Osborn as Marcellus; Ewen Cummins as Barnardo; Robert Curtis as Francisco.

Copyright RSC / Illuminations / BBC.

(when I worked in FOH for the stage version of this production, Keith Osborn and Peter de Jersey’s delivery of these lines were one of my favourite moments in the play – it was the mixture of chill and comfort)

n.b. I am not suggesting anyone should have A Very Hamlet Christmas. It would not end well.

The Greatest Hamlet of Our Time

(c) Kate Beaton, who is my favourite comics artist ever
(c) Kate Beaton http://www.harkavagrant.com

I love Hark, a vagrant more than is seemly for someone who won’t read graphic novels and ‘doesn’t like comics’. Every one’s a winner, but this… this is a fucking comic about nineteenth Shakespeare performance history, guys! It’s my DPhil in a line drawing!* I love it.  I include it because it reminds me of working for the RSC. Although David Tennant’s fans (self included) were usually a lot better behaved (apart from the guy who chased him backstage during one interval, or the people who hid behind his car. Or the two Chinese girls who sat outside the stage door, all day, every day, for a week).

The cartoon hysteria’s not unmerited. Edwin Booth was pretty awesome. As well as introducing a sorely needed note of introspection to mid-Victorian Shakespearian acting, he saved Abraham Lincoln’s son from going under a train, perfected the Charles Kean Crawl (the traditional moment in a Victorian Hamlet when Our Hero writhes about on his stomach, at his uncle-father and aunt-mother’s feet…. okay, so, less introspective) added some rug-rumpling, and was the brother of the guy who SHOT ABRAHAM LINCOLN (see start of paragraph). It makes me want this book. Even by the Macready-fancying, death-fetishising, Shaw-obsessing, gender-bending standards of my usual Victorian theatre favourites, Booth’s exciting.

I think he’s also the earliest nineteenth-century actor whose voice is still available to us in recorded form. More famous is Ellen Terry reciting Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained […]”, dating from 1912, and which I first heard at the British Library, during marginally related research into Wilde. But Booth’s 1890 recording of Othello Act I, Scene 3 is 22 years older (and 9 years older than the first silent Shakespeare film, Beerbohm Tree’s 1899 King John). You can download here (the embedded file begins “Most potent, grave and reverend signiors”), or listen to a slightly cleaner extract at YouTube (clip 1 begins “My story being done”). I love hearing nineteenth-century actors at work, although as yet it doesn’t affect my critical methodology. I wonder if it will. It makes me think about the possible impact of audio and film recordings on the “archaeological” approach to performance stories: I’ve never yet read a performance studies work on nineteenth or even early twentieth-century drama that seriously considered audio recordings as a source. Perhaps that’s because, as far as I can tell, these records seem to exist outside theatrical performance (I seem to remember reading that Ellen Terry’s recording was part of a lecture – although those, of course, married academic and theatrical experience for her listeners, and are key to my doctoral research), or perhaps there simply isn’t enough material. It’s still worth investigating. Note to self, then.

*I wish this comic were my DPhil.‡

‡Be careful what you wish for.

On Sarah Bernhardt: Clement Scott, feminist?

Clement Scott, policing society to save it from Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.
Clement Scott, policing society to save it from Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.
Sarah Bernhardt, being awesome. On a poster.

Clement Scott was a bit rubbish. Think of your least favourite, self-satisfied male theatre critic and then walk half a mile to the right. Scott’s there. He’s the one who thought that Ibsen would destroy society, and conspired with George Alexander to make Oscar Wilde change the original, too-radical plot of Lady Windermere’s Fan.

On the other hand (as Gail Marshall has just pointed out to me, via Shakespeare and Victorian Women 2009 although what an Oxford Brookes don is doing publishing with CUP, hem hem), he managed to write an entire chapter on Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet without getting worked up about the fact she was a woman.

Used the female pronoun throughout? Check. Thought her performance was completely fantastic? Check. Used the phrase ‘the actor or actress Hamlet’ without hyperventilating, snideness or mouth-frothing? Oh, Clement Scott, all is so very nearly redeemed.

Best of all, when he says that Bernhardt’s ‘task was heroic in its significance and importance’, he doesn’t just mean ‘well done, that woman, for being Hamlet without mucking it up, have a hairbow’, he’s talking about what she’s done for her career and for Hamlet in general: she’s done what Scott felt needed to be done for Hamlet (and, of course, for theatre in general) by offering not only ‘new readings, new ideas, change for the sake of change’ but also ‘genius and the gift of inspiration’.

‘These things,’ Scott concludes, ‘belong to Sarah Bernhardt’. And thus Hamlet does too.

RSC & The Oliviers | Tennant on DVD | British Library II | essay essay essay

Photo: Ferdaus Shamim/Getty Images
Photo: Ferdaus Shamim/Getty Images

This week has been a very tough week, but I’m using this post to focus on the awesomeness, MUCH OF WHICH is contained in the photograph above: the RSC Histories company winning THREE Oliviers. The photo is ridiculous in some ways – only Chuk Iwuji, as my friend pointed out, seems to know how to wear a suit in the accepted fashion, and why is Jonathan Slinger (Richard II and Richard III, for god’s sake) on his tiptoes at the back – but it’s also great, and hilarious, and I’m so glad they won. In rather less awesome news, RSC Sources (a really posh way of saying ‘Kath, with whom I  used to work, who is on Facebook, and lovely’)  say that the news that the David Tennant Hamlet will be put on DVD may have been a bit premature… which is a shame. I’ll be sad if the story’s false, but hopefully it will still happen sooner or later… in incredibly exciting Shakespeare news, the Cobbe portrait may (or may not) be another ‘life portrait’ of the writer. I hope it is, although I always imagined him milder and not so Elizabeth I about the nose and throat. But really, who has a portrait (I nearly typed ‘photo’) of a balding, long-haired Elizabethan with aesthetic tendencies on their walls for 300 years without considering it might be him? I suspect the Cobbes need their roof doing.

Today, I was back at the British Library, dealing with mercifully more helpful staff and a significantly more important manuscript. Even if the preliminary conversation (the gist thereof reproduced below) was like a sort of German farce:

Me: I am here for a manuscript. Look, my card.

Her: We know you not.

Me: I think you do.

Her: There is no manuscript here.

Me: It is quite an important manuscript. I had to get letters of approval. Please give me my manuscript.

Her: [indicates with look, word and gesture that she thinks my ever being approved to look in a mirror is unlikely] There is no manuscript. When did you order it.

Me: Two weeks ago. Let me speak to someone else.

Him: OH MY GOD, you want to see THAT MANUSCRIPT? It’s in a SAFE. A safe with LOCKS. Are you SURE, are you sure you won’t just VOMIT on it or possibly COLOUR IN WITH CRAYONS?

Me: I am quite sure.

Him: !!!!!!!!!! You need a LETTER FOR THAT.

Me: You are holding my letter. I can read the heading and the Brasenose logo through the paper.

Him: This is quite true. [gives] Where are you sitting? Oh my GOD, you’re sitting THERE? You want to look at that manuscript while SITTING THERE? As if it hadn’t just COME FROM A SAFE? Are you sure you aren’t just HIDING CRAYONS in your NON-EXISTENT CLEAVAGE?

Me: I need to write 11,000 words quite soon.

And so forth. All in all, though, a successful day; for the price of a 36-foot yacht, I was able to purchase the most delicious sandwich I’ve ever eaten, and further destabilise the methodology of a leader bibliographer (at least two of us are now writing essays the theme of which is primarily ‘[Bibliography X] is full of lies‘. But THEN, dear readers, after I had drawn big smiley faces over the priceless artefact completed my research, I went downstairs and into a room that was casually displaying the Magna Carta (I list this first not because I care but because I gather one is meant to), the LINDISFARNE GOSPELS, BEOWULF (ACTUALLY BLOODY BEOWULF, THE ONLY ONE, OMG), Sylvia Plath MSS, all sorts of sacred texts from world religions, GOWER, and PERSUASION. Sylvia Plath had writing like a cheerleader, the Magna Carta was clearly made by robots (and looks like a map of the desert), and if it’s medieval and came from the Cotton library, it probably had its edges burnt off during a fire in 1731. The exhibition doesn’t seem to be listed on the British Library website, but it’s free (like the rest of the library), so go, go in, and bear to the left.

Also, I went swing-dancing this week. My calves. My calves.

(other sustaining things here in OX4 – Jenny, Chloe, the fail king, my MCR, custard creams, using the word ‘torrid’ unnecessarily in my bibliography essay, implying Wilde had yet more boyfriends, Jay, m’boy, theselby.com and my new Primark habit. Yes, I know goods do not bring happiness but I have never been able to shake the belief that my life will be much better if I can only buy a lot of stuff. If stuff is edible,* so much the better).

*I am not saying the stuff Primark sells is edible.

The readiness is all.

Ed Bennett, former Laertes and new leading man
Ed Bennett, former Laertes and new leading man

It’s news like the fact that David Tennant has been invalided out of the London run of Hamlet with a bad back that makes me wish I was back at work. Or showering the hospital and/or Ed Bennett with flowers. I was so excited to see the first picture of him as Hamlet today, though. I didn’t see the understudy run of Hamlet back in Stratford, but am sure he’s as great as the media reception says. It’s an amazing opportunity (and couldn’t happen to a nicer person), but god, being told you’re filling for David Tennant in an audience which at any given moment is 40% screaming fangirls? You could really be forgiven for wanting to vomit out your own spleen.

Fortunately, so far the press coverage (and punter comment) seems to have been as gracious as both Tennant and Bennett deserve. I was braced for people to start demanding their money back, berating Tennant or making snide remarks about celebrities in stage shows (of the Martine McCutcheon/My Fair Lady variety). Nobody who has seen Tennant, much less worked in the same building (even briefly and lowly as I did) could doubt just how hard he works – he never stops working, thinking or running (and, of course, he was bloody good). The man bolts on and offstage. It’s exhausting, even when your only related responsibilities are to stop the audience chasing him backstage (which happened), stealing the props (which happened repeatedly) and thwarting the patrons who inexplicably decided that the time when he’s behind the stalls doing a full costume change (note: this doesn’t happen at the Novello, don’t even try) is when they need to start roaming the auditorium in search of a loo.

There’s been a little bit of the first sort of idiocy, though. Some people are idiots who don’t seem to grasp that going to see Hamlet is not like going to see, say, Take That: if the band aren’t there, you get a refund. You’re paying to SEE A PRODUCTION OF HAMLET. You’re seeing Hamlet. The RSC has a full understudy policy, and virtually everyone understudies something (hence the slightly ridiculous matinee where Jim Hooper had hurt his back and Oliver Ford-Davies played both Polonius and the Priest, thus burying the daughter who’d killed herself because he’d died. If you follow). I definitely did not want to see Hamlet in London before now; a prosc arch? Why? And, of course, I’m a Stratford girl who’s never quite got to grips with the idea of the RSC in London. Hamlet in Stratford was my holiday romance as much as a summer job. But now, I’m intrigued – I want to see this ‘moody teenager’ Hamlet, Tom Davey as Laertes, and Rob Curtis as Lucianus, and, most of all, Ricky Champ as Guildenstern. All the same, I’m sorry for all the people who were looking forward to seeing David Tennant – I’m sorriest of all, though, for him. I can’t imagine how he must feel, apart from, you know, disappointed, embarassed and in presumably quite dreadful pain.

(And why yes, this is my first post written on WordPress as opposed to imported from Blogspot. I’m excited. Don’t know how I’ll get all the widgets to work, but looking forward to finding out).