I looked at the clock: two hours and twenty minutes, including the interval. Productions of Comedy of Errors ran this length, not Hamlet. Recently, I sat through a nearly four-hour Elsinorian behemoth. But all the dramatic boxes had been ticked—there was a ghost, a sable suit, an arras, a jumped-in grave, multiple slaughters, and so on. And yet there were no major cuts. As the saying goes, “Just because everything has changed, doesn’t mean that anything is different.”
Welcome to the alternative Hamlet universe, compliments of the first published Hamlet text, the 1603 quarto (Q1). This text has often been aspersed by scholars as a “bad quarto” since, among other reasons, it is considerably shorter than the second quarto and first folio versions. Suppositions for why this is the case include that Q1 was an acting text and/or was reconstructed from memory by the actor playing Marcellus (or both, or neither). Nevertheless, Q1 resembles the “received” Hamlet in shape, if not in length or detail.
Watching Vital Signs Theatre’s production of Q1 Hamlet at the White Bear Theatre Club, I was struck with the cognitive dissonance of listening to speech that resembled the familiar but contained unexpected changes and omissions. As director Imogen Bond says in the promotional material, “Even people who are not over-familiar with the canonical Hamlet may be unsettled when Hamlet says, ‘To be or not to be,’ but then doesn’t say, ‘That is the question’.” It is, instead, “Ay, there’s the point.” Unsettling indeed, as are a whole host of other changes. But while some changes are questionable (we must admit that “Ay, there’s the point” is a bit of a let-down), others work well. When Ofelia (Q1 changes some of the character names and spellings) recounts Hamlet’s accosting her in the gallery, her language is toned down, the images sharper (“his shoes untied”), and the previously ridiculous situation becomes far more plausible.
As an acting text, Q1 moves swiftly. The interval arrives after Hamlet says, “The plays the thing...” where other productions cut off sometime around the Gertrude-Hamlet exchange. What does it do to our perception of the play when Corambis (aka Polonius) is not dead until well into the second half? A breath of fresh air is Gertred’s development. Instead of simply reading Hamlet’s letter describing his aborted journey to England, Horatio discusses its contents with Gertred. She thus becomes aware of her now-husband’s treachery against her son, and this provides juicy subtext for further Gertred-King scenes. The ending, too, is swift. There is blissfully little pitter-patter between Leartes and the King: just some curt plotting and getting on with it.
Bond gathers a plum cast, and their strong training comes through in solid delivery. Jamie Matthewman’s Hamlet makes clear work of his lines and creates an emotionally believable character. Matthew Spencer’s Leartes demonstrates impressive range, exhibiting finely masked rage upon his return to Denmark. Diana Katis artfully conceals and reveals Gertred’s horror upon learning her current husband has killed her first husband and is now trying to kill her son. Katis directs the line “A rat, a rat” at the King (Robert Lonergan), ostensibly relating the news of Corambis’s (Maurice Byrne) death, but actually venting her disgust. In an interesting move, Bond casts Horatio as a female, played with intelligence and depth by Katie Hayes. The vague 1930s setting allows for a clever song-and-dumb-show routine during the play-within-the-play. Yet, other choices are less successful, and the production suffers from poorly defined relationships. For example, Hamlet makes it clear to Ofelia (Rebecca Pownall) that he never loved her—so why is he jumping in her grave? Also, though the cast is large, Bond has Pownall double as the second gravedigger, forcing Ofelia’s “body” to be represented by a black sheet during the funeral scene—unnecessary in a production that otherwise tends toward the straightforward.
Q1 Hamlet in performance is a rare treat, providing a driven story while still maintaining emotional resonance. Its different approach to key events in the play are refreshing after being so conventionalized by centuries of performance history.