Yes, so – it was fantastic. Which I know is the point of going to see the RSC, but when you’ve been anticipating something so eagerly you never know if you might end up disappointed.
I had a three-hour coach journey over in the morning, so I reread the play while I was travelling: as I read, I found that the Claudius-Gertrude story really stood out for me. What justification has he found for murdering his brother: could it be the Hamlet senior was a megalomaniac whose tendency to – say – get into combat with neighbouring kings is seriously threatening the safety of Denmark? How much does she know, or to what extent is she lying to herself? So I was watching for this, and the production really delivered.
The set was a palace of the ancien regime, but Claudius and Gertrude were a very modern royal couple: business-suited and business-like. The chandeliered salons of Elsinore were guarded by men in fantastically OTT dress uniforms and its battlements by men in trench-coats with machine guns. (Seriously, it was exactly like Barrayar. Pictures here.)
With the Ghost in armour, and Claudius in his suit surrounded by advisors, we were watching an attempt to transform a feudal petty kingdom maintained by single combat and the figure of a charismatic king into a bureaucratic state legitimized by diplomacy and a monopoly on violence (a fiction laid bare during the play, as Claudius’ propensity to indulge in political assassination shifts from being pragmatic to becoming a pleasure in itself; he is positively gleeful as Laertes describes the poison on his sword). The whole enterprise is threatened by Hamlet junior’s annoying tendency to tell the truth, when what everyone else wants to do is establish the fiction as quickly as possible, so that it can become the new truth.
Tennant’s physical energy and verbal sharpness were thrilling; Hamlet is the brilliant young man so much cleverer than anyone around him, but all these gifts of perception are being warped by grief and circumstance (the glimpse of the king he could have been when he begs the pardon of Laertes before their duel is the purest moment of tragedy for me). Stewart was mesmerizing: there was so much going in his performance to watch, particularly when other people were talking, and he would manipulate with a word or two every so often from the side. Penny Downie plays Gertrude initially with brittle joviality as she tries to pull her son along with the new regime; eventually she collapses into self-disgust at what she’s been a (willing? unwitting?) party to. I loved Oliver Ford Davies, who gave Polonius real pathos. And I was totally thrilled to see John Woodvine as the Player King, because you cannot beat British character actors of a certain generation.
I have to say special things about Osric the toady who, after the interval, epitomized the kind of value-free flunky that advances in an era of managerialist politics: sharp suit, slick smile, and total slipperiness of morals. He is first to bow to Fortinbras, of course; this bow is the last action performed in the play – a brilliant conclusion, I thought. I for one welcome our new Norwegian overlords.
So, the Barrayar thing: it seemed to me that this is what would have happened had Emperor Ezar persuaded Aral that the best thing for Barrayar was for Aral to take the Imperium after Ezar’s death and before Gregor reaches his majority. Hamlet senior is therefore Prince Serg: a sadistic madman whose rule would have been one of bloodshed and terror. But the public memory is of Prince Serg the war hero – and it’s this legend that Gregor grows up believing, rather than the truth of his father’s madness. Aral has married Kareen to give his rule even more legitimacy (this is Barrayar without Cordelia); Elena would, I think, be Ophelia. Gregor would go mad; Aral would try to have him murdered; everyone would murder everyone else. And I for one would welcome our new Cetagandan overlords.