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Sir Trevor Nunn introduces V&A Hamlet screening and studying Ben Whishaw's performance a second time

IMG_0445The first and only time I've seen what I regard as the definitive Hamlet was on a small telly with headphones in the V&A theatre and performance archive nearly three years ago.

As part of the 20th-anniversary celebrations of the archives they are showing a selection of the plays on a big screen and today was said definitive Hamlet, the Old Vic's 2004 production starring Stan fav Ben Whishaw and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, who braved the snowy weather to introduce the recording.

In what he claimed was an unprepared speech, he talked about how this production came into being, a production which sees not only the protagonist played as a 19-year-old but also his fellow students, mother and uncle as much younger than theatre-land normally casts.

Opportunity to revisit

Previously unaware that the recording existed (the archive is for a national record not commercial purposes) Sir Trevor seemed genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to see it again: "Theatre is usually like drawing in the sand, the waves come in and wash it all away so there is nothing left to see."

At the time Hamlet was playing at the Old Vic negotiations were ongoing about making a TV version but these came to nothing.

Now the story of how he got the idea for a young Hamlet began when he was what he describes as "a precocious 18-year-old, or rather a more precocious 18-year-old".

He put on a production of Hamlet with a company of teenage actors and felt then that the play was always about this age group.

Conventional production

Ten years later he directed Alan Howard in the lead role for the RSC. Howard was then in his early 30s and Nunn realised that what he was putting on "was a conventional production".

"Theatre history decrees that Hamlet is played by an actor in their 30s or even 40s and we've grown accustomed to that," he explained. "In the 19th century touring companies the lead actor, who would naturally be given the part, would always be of a certain age."

He said youth is something that is emphasised throughout the play, Ophelia can be no more than 16 or 17-years-old which is why her brother and father give her advice.

Laertes is just going off to university, again why his father gives him advice. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are students as are Horatio and Hamlet. 

Trauma felt more by youth

Think of the trauma of hearing, as a 19 or 20-year-old, that your father, the King, has died and then just 7 weeks later your mother marries your uncle.

"Having a young actor playing Hamlet allowed for a young Gertrude - late 30s/early 40s - and her affair with Claudius is more understandable. Her and Claudius still feel youthful."

And I couldn't agree more. I've never really bought the idea of Hamlet still being a student in his 30s (that would have been middle-aged in Shakespeare's time and surely as a Prince, his parents would have had him married off and producing heirs?).

Something clicked

This young Hamlet just clicked into place for me. It just works better. Hamlet's youth and inexperience is a better explanation of his behaviour in the circumstances in which he finds himself. Would a 30-year-old put on a play to test the reaction of his uncle?

Ben Whishaw's Hamlet grows towards the end of the play as if maturing through the experience. The snivelling, inconsolable Hamlet of the opening scene (full marks for snot Mr W) is a far cry from the calculating and calmer Hamlet at the end resigned to his fate and the task he is charged with.

The youthful, flirtatious Gertrude (Imogen Stubbs) also works as a doting mother.

When Hamlet sits on her lap in the closet scene, it doesn't seem ironic on Hamlet's part or hinting of something incestuous but a momentary lapse of both mother and son into a time and behaviour not long past.

School girl caught in politics

And so too for the young Ophelia's mental deterioration. She is a school girl who gets caught up in politics, is forced to snub her sweetheart and witnesses the nightmarish sight of her father's freshly murdered and bloody body.

Second viewings are always great for spotting details you miss the first time around. For instance, I really noticed Al Weaver this time and likewise Tom Mison and Jack Laskey all of whom I've subsequently seen on stage and TV but had small parts in Hamlet.

Weaver, of course, took the title role in the matinee performances of Hamlet.

Broken finger

And, rather randomly, I really noticed Mr W's broken finger - he was wearing a small plastic cast on his middle finger that was identical to one I had to wear. Couldn't help wondering how he'd broken it and whether it got terribly sweaty and itchy like mine did?

It's never the same watching on screen as it is watching it live but there are still those delightfully unperfect moments that would end up on the cutting room floor, such as when Mr W's sword got entangled in his belt and he couldn't unsheath it.

He also knocks a bottle of water over during the 'to be or not to be' speech and Gertrude clinks her champagne glass a little too vigorously causing the base to snap off.

As much as I wish the TV negotiations hadn't broken down, none of this would have made it onto a DVD and they are a stepping stone to the unique nature of live performance.

Feels like I've had a real treat and looking forward to seeing another play in the 20th anniversary season very soon.

Related reading:

Ben Whishaw's Hamlet, the hallelujah moment (a review)