I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

You knew him well, Horatio

Let's see, in roughly chronological order:

Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer (radio), John Gielgud (radio), a clever sixth-former at my old school, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, Mel Gibson (I can't be sure), Maxine Peake and, last Saturday, Benedict Cumberbatch. There may be others because I've always grabbed the chance and now regret refusing, laughingly, to book a well-regarded version in Russian at the British Film Institute. I'd see it now in a flash if I had the opportunity; perhaps there's a DVD,

Hamlet, of course, for what else could withstand so much repetition? Only music, and both Cosi and Figaro must be creeping up to parity with the crazy Dane.

Poncy, you say. Showing off. Well then, what's new? You've always known I'm a ponce and a show-off. TD has lost readers because of it.

The best Hamlet? The radio versions, both four hours, followed by Kenneth Branagh, also full. Train schedules and baby-sitters mean we rarely see the full play. And that’s a shame. To qualify for "the best" Hamlet must, first and foremost, be complete. It wasn't written to be cut. Hamlet himself explains:

The play's the thing.

I don’t know it word for word nor can I resolve its contradictions. I often dwell on what I haven't seen. Cumberbatch passes through a Polish army camp (referring to the soldiers as Polacks) and I wondered whether I'd previously seen that.

Polonius is often the litmus paper. Sometimes he’s dismissed as a fussy bumbler but it’s only familiarity that makes us slide over:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

It’s not even wholly true. But Hamlet’s a play not an encyclopedia and the lines stick.


  1. If it were wholly true, no need to search for The Truth as some of us do.?

  2. Ellena: I meant Polonius's quote wasn't wholly true. It can justify speaking over-frankly rather than lying (just a little) to save someone's feelings; calling a spade a spade, something so beloved by people born in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where I was born.

    As for searching for "the truth", I think we all do it to a greater or lesser extent; it is part of the process of becoming adult. For me it boils down to facts, opinions, behaviour, situations and creations which I have been able personally to verify as relevant and valuable to me. I don't believe there is such a thing as universal truth since it would seem to undermine our individual uniqueness.

  3. We "did" Hamlet for A levels. I was and still am, fascinated by it and our teacher's explanations of the plot and the nuances behind opened my eyes to the depths of Shakespeare. Those quoted lines of Polonius can just about sum up a life's philosophy.

  4. I also refer to that quote Roderick.

  5. Avus: I'm rather glad we didn't do Hamlet at school. Since I left for work at age 15 I think it would have been too much for me. As it was we did do Henry IV Part 2, generally conceded to be the best of the history plays (and from which I first learned of Lady Percy's speech to Northumberland which forms part of Tone Deaf's home page), and this proved more digestible for someone as anti-school as me. My first experience of Hamlet was the Laurence Olivier movie and this was so pared down it lasts well under two hours. A much easier ride even if it was some years before I realised the play contains Rosencranz and Guildenstern, savagely slashed by LO.

  6. So did you go and see the Cumberbatch version? This isn't clear from your post, apart from the mention of Polacks. If you did see it, what's your opinion of the performance? And, incidentally, were you there when BC, offstage, bravely excoriated the govt? Noises of outrage from Daily Mail etc, applause from the rafters.

  7. Natalie: Is it really not clear? You'll be requiring laundry lists next. Being too explicit risks banality.

    I wanted to write about the play. Why should my opinion matter? Opinions are two a penny.

    Read my latest short story (above) and make an obvious conclusion.

  8. No, it wasn't clear to me that you'd actually attended Cumberbatch's performance. You were talking about the various versions of Hamlet, so you could have been including this one from having read reviews etc.

    "Why should my opinion matter?"
    Isn't that what all of us bloggers are doing, giving our opinions about this, that, and the other?
    Your impression/opinion/comment on BC's Hamlet would be interesting to those of us who didn't see it, and possibly also to those who did.

  9. Natalie: I saw Hamlet streamed from the Barbican. A great barn of a stage which meant that the director had to practice great ingenuity when a sense of intimacy was required; the stabbing through the arras, for instance, involved a structure that resembled a four-poster, a device that also accommodated the travelling players when H's playlet was enacted.

    Streamed plays lie somewhere between real theatre and movies; they lack the immediacy of the former and - because there are fewer cameras - the flexibility of the latter. Shots that are stage-wide can be remote and it may be difficult to work out who is actually speaking. Familiarity with the play clears up this latter defect but it shouldn't be necessary for the audience to have to work this out; in the theatre stereophonic hearing does the job for us.

    Thus, for some time, BC's movements were logical and admirably graceful and his diction acceptable, but there was a discrepancy - perhaps a remoteness - between the two. A bit like hearing a radio performance of a play taking place on a theatrical stage instead of in a studio. Voices at odds with their enviroment. The end effect for me was competence rather than emotional engagement.

    A much more serious failing is that this approach deprived BC of one of his greatest assets: his strangely columnar but eloquent face. Luckily, as with most Shakespeare plays, many of Hamlet's initial scenes have a strong expository element and detachment is less of a problem. It is my impression that as the play's emotional content grew or, if you like, became more explicit the number of close-ups increased and I started to be moved. This was noticeable in the latterday relationship with Laertes; there's always a risk of Hamlet seeming to appear naive in the face of Laertes's justifiable hatred, but BC avoided this and his desire to be forgiven for Polonius's death was persuasive. They fenced each other with alarming authority, apparently not fearing to knock out each other's eye.

    I have a great affection for BC, notably for his superlative performance in the TV adaptation of Parade's End in which he was the personification of mental and physical weariness. Old beyond his years.

    As to age, however, BC wasn't as subtle as Kenneth Branagh and that's ironic: Branagh is actually 55, BC is 40 and both are tackling a role variously put at 18 - 20; not many actors of that age play Hamlet. I think we accept older Hamlets on the understanding that it takes experience to ride over the character's contradictions. I would particularly like to see Fiona Shaw do it.

    There you go: opinions ten a penny. I wrote this reluctantly because we have proved in the past that our judgments (and our expectations) are incompatible. However, in the end if someone says write I write.

  10. Thank you, I'm glad I asked. I had no idea that the play was being 'streamed' (not sure what that process involves) in cinemas but have now looked that up. Shows how out of touch I am with a lot of What's On.
    I agree with your appreciation of BC and "..his strangely columnar but eloquent face" is exactly right.

    Should I say sorry for agreeing with you? Am I supposed to be forever adversarial?
    I thought I we were getting on quite well!

  11. Natalie: Our approaches appear to be fundamentally different and the differences are at their widest when dealing with subjective matters. For want of a better word I go the materialistic route: aiming for verifiable statements via the accretion of self-evident detail. Needless to say it doesn't always work. This is simply my preference, I do not seek to proselytise. The same impulse, in a slightly different form, is applied to my fiction. Rightly or wrongly I have concluded from your comments that my approach (quite different from my opinions) is uncongenial to you.

    There could be nothing more subjective than an attempt to render an actor's performance, nothing more evanescent. I wanted to write a tiny little bit about Hamlet, not about BC. My subsequent comment shows why. For me an honest (ie, as near to verifiable as I could make it) account of BC's performance would depend on a number of technical matters which would need lengthy explanations and, in the end, would merely be an opinion like any other.

    It is not a question of your being adversarial. We simply start out with different expectations. This is to some extent confirmed in that your only response to my exhaustive account concerns a simple adjectival phrase, as if that answered the much more knotty matters that may (an important word!) have affected a theatrical experience. Hence my rather dismissive remarks about opinions, on which and including my own, "I set not a pin's fee" (lit. quote).

  12. Yes, that's a good description of of our different approaches. It's not that yours is uncongenial to me but simply that, often, I don't "get it". Blame it on our very different backgrounds, character, whatever. I didn't respond adequately to your exhaustive account because, a)I can't match your Shakespearian credentials and b)I didn't see BC's performance, which is why I was interested in hearing your comments about it. Yes, subjectivity is, perhaps, both my forte and my failure but I try and extract the best from both. Don't be too severe with me, I'm really quite friendly.