Heather Neill previews a new touring production of Hamlet, which uses history to emphasise its themes
Hamlet By William Shakespeare English Touring Theatre Tel: 020 7450 1991 Tour and education details www.ett.org.uk
Stephen Unwin has set his production of Hamlet, starring Ed (son of Tom) Stoppard, in 1620, about two decades after it was written. He has chosen this period "on the cusp of the Civil War, because Elizabethan tensions are quite difficult for modern audiences to read". A slightly later time is recognised for its political edginess and there is the added advantage that people do not appear in tights, so "soldiers look more like soldiers".
Unwin thinks that the idea of "Shakespeare our contemporary" may have run its course, that updating the plays risks saying nothing about either his time or ours. The thinking in Hamlet, he says, "comes between the Reformation and the Civil War. Look at the people Hamlet trusts - the players, the gravedigger, the poor scholar Horatio, soldiers. The scene in the graveyard is not just about the enormity of death, it is about death as the great leveller."
Unwin also believes it is important to remember that the play is about two families - Hamlet's and Ophelia's. "If the world had been different, Hamlet and Ophelia would have made a wonderful couple and he and Laertes would have been the best of friends. Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia is partly the result of his disgust at his mother's behaviour, partly that he doesn't know who to trust, but also he wants to save her from the corruption of himself and the world. Polonius is a clever politician, but he has been there a bit too long, his powers are going slightly and a new world is taking over. "
As for Hamlet's reluctance to kill Claudius on the Ghost's instruction, first, "killing is hard to do anyway, but he is being told to kill the king and his mother's boyfriend at that. It's a further challenge that he doesn't know if he can trust the Ghost: has the devil sent it or is it really the voice of his father? It is a Catholic play, of course, with its acknowledgement of purgatory".
For Unwin, "the theatre is everywhere in the play. It explores how you investigate the truth. How could this (a play) represent the truth?"
He has edited a radical new edition (published by Oberon Books, pound;4.99): "I've taken out punctuation and stage directions and included our cuts. There are scenes, but no Act divisions and that encourages a forward flow which makes the acting very fresh".