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Conrad Nelson On ... Hamlet

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When I interviewed Northern Broadsides’ Barrie Rutter late last year, he told me that Conrad Nelson, Associate Director of the company, had long harboured a wish to direct <i>Hamlet</i>, a wish that is finally fulfilled on February 25th at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme. So was there some particular reason for this? Taking time out of rehearsal, Conrad told me he had no particular history with the play, but it was something he just wanted a crack at – the theatrical equivalent of “because it was there”!

“It’s a play I’ve always admired from a distance, but, when you come to work on it, you find it’s altogether a different piece. There is a sort of mythology around Hamlet, so a production becomes more of an act of archaeology, uncovering layers until you come to the ‘Eureka’ moment. I don’t want to add still more layers of interpretation – I want to try to find what’s there in the piece itself.”

Asked what he has found, Conrad explains how details can affect our way of seeing various crucial and problematic scenes. For instance, in the scene between Hamlet and Laertes by the tomb of Ophelia, Conrad sees Hamlet’s final couplet (ending with “The cat will mew and dog will have his day”) not as triumphalist, a jeering playground insult, but as final recognition of what we must come to: whatever we do, we don’t escape death. From the moment of confrontation, Laertes has become silent, a burnt-out case according to Conrad, so the two young men share a comradeship of hopelessness.

Conrad’s enthusiasm for the play means that these ideas flood out, interspersed with apologies that they might be obvious or that audiences may see them as unhelpful, though they all sound pretty sensible to me.

Perhaps the key aspect of the Broadsides production will not be the updated setting (of which more later) but Conrad’s insistence that he is more interested in Hamlet the play than in Hamlet the star role: “If it comes out as a string of soliloquies joined together by scenes with not very interesting characters, then we’ve failed.” Though he enthuses over Nicholas Shaw who plays Hamlet, Conrad explains that he was selected quite late on in proceedings – this is emphatically not a production built around a star performance.

So how does Conrad Nelson see Hamlet ? Two themes seem to predominate in his interpretation. He is at pains to emphasise the importance of error, of accident (“that’s where the pathos comes from”) and, side by side with this, the recollection of happier times. Certainly there is something rotten in the state of Denmark (“a fault-line at Elsinore ready to plunge them into the sea”, according to Conrad), but this is a Hamlet  where at the outset Ophelia sings serenely to Claudius’ piano accompaniment. This has been a functional society – and Hamlet has loved Ophelia. Another reason for not choosing an established star for the Prince is that they tend to be the wrong side of 30 – and Conrad wishes to suggest a convincing youthful relationship.

Given that many recent productions have set Hamlet in a “sometime modern” world, with no specific period, Northern Broadsides opted for a more precise updating, as precise as a single year, 1949! Conrad’s reasons for this are less precise, not one dominant event or movement, but a series of helpful associations: the shattering effect of war, the re-drawing of boundaries, the McCarthy-ite witch-hunts (fitting the theme of watching), the developing independence of women, even, moving on a year or two, the emergence of heroes of youthful rebellion such as the film-star James Dean or John Osborne’s Angry Young Man Jimmy Porter.

Northern Broadsides’ Hamlet will clearly be a production of ideas, but not one that will linger over them. The company has a reputation for sending audiences out in something nearer to Shakespeare’s “two hours’ traffic of our stage” than the Royal Shakespeare Company can manage, but Hamlet can run to almost Wagnerian length. “We don’t hang about,” says Conrad, but this will be a rich and full production, with music which ranges from 16th century Danish (the world of Old Hamlet) to 1940s swing (Claudius’ court) and reflects Conrad’s eclectic tastes and the instrumental and vocal skills of all the cast.

One thing it will not be, Conrad insists, is the definitive Hamlet, but I suspect no such thing exists anyway!

Yorkshire dates for Hamlet by Northern Broadsides are:
March 22-26  Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
March 29-April 2  Viaduct Theatre, Halifax
April 19-30  West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds


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