Between the ages;Subject of the week;History;Reviews;Subject of the week;History;Set play

5th November 1999 at 00:00
HAMLET. By William Shakespeare. Bristol Old Vic.

A play possessed by death is how director Gemma Bodinetz characterises Hamlet. So it's unsurprising her production is set in 1913, "on the fault-line of two moralities, when two ages crashed in on each other".

"In a Renaissance setting, I'd have produced an individual's psycho-drama, but no political or social context," she says. "The time is out of joint; there's a huge sense of it from the first scene, with the soldiers looking out and talking of shipbuilding, the preparation for war.

"Hamlet is tortured about the death of his father yet when they meet his father has no words," she adds, other than facts and commands. Old Hamlet becomes a "Victorian father-figure with a secure morality". You knew where you stood with old Hamlet.

You don't with Claudius, a much younger brother (and more Gertrude's age) who brings in the Edwardian world of suffrage and communism, "where everything is being questioned - and Hamlet is the most famous questioner of all time".

Hamlet also meets a Norwegian captain who talks of 20,000 men dying for a worthless strip of land - trench warfare is looming. He reflects that these men can kill while he cannot even avenge his father's murder. Paralysed by his thoughts, Hamlet admires a soldier's ability to act on command. (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such people; the officer class of the coming war.) "Part of Hamlet harks back to the old morality, his father's Old Testament certainty of an eye for an eye. But he's very New Testament, profoundly modern," Bodinetz says.

"Hamlet and Horatio are full of Freud, Marx, Stravinsky, Picasso. So he cannot kill his uncle." This is a social version of the Oedipal conflict.

There is one effect of the choice of period that Bodinetz particularly enjoys: Ophelia dies on the eve of women getting the vote.

And why is Hamlet so cruel to her? On one level she is being manipulated to entrap him into revealing his motivations - but his anger has a deeper source. A key phrase, from Hamlet's first soliloquy, about his mother, is "Why she, even she". In remarrying so quickly after old Hamlet's death, Gertrude has tainted all women - certainly all for whom Hamlet might have had any affection, and Ophelia suffers the effects.

Ophelia's father, Polonius, is the manipulator behind his daughter. He was a stalwart of old Hamlet's 'Victorian' court with its moral certainties and, in the rush of Claudius' new world, he has to run to stand still. So he becomes involved in plots for which he has no aptitude.

The sense of a shifty morality, of hypocritical behaviour and a world which is all veneer, helps maintain sympathy for Hamlet when he accidentally kills Polonius. This happens shortly after the performance of The Mousetrap, the play at court where Hamlet becomes convinced of Claudius' guilt; he feels pleased with himself and his confidence surges.

Shakespeare allows him no show of regret. Having killed the wrong man, Hamlet turns down the chance to slay the right one. It's no accident the sinner, Claudius, is not allowed to die in prayer and thus escape blame, when "Hamlet's father is so central to his life, and the meaning of death is very potent in the play".

'Hamlet' is at Bristol Old Vic from October 28 to November 27. Fortickets, tel: 0117 987 7877

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