A One-Man Hamlet stands or falls by its lone performer, Will Bligh – the man behind Berlin-based production company, Living Art. In tackling the most famous part in the Western canon, Bligh has set himself a monumental task: Andrew Cowie’s taut adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is shorter than its renowned parent, but Bligh – in addition to putting across the soliloquies – has to double as the Ghost, assuming a hoarse and roaring voice which was as much worrying as alarming.
The demands of the role at times seem too much for Bligh. Effective productions of Shakespeare, even in adapted form, usually rely on the actor’s ability to speak blank verse well. Unless the cast can bring to this fundamental building block of Shakespearean drama some genuine rhythmic awareness (and many, even in the British theatre, cannot) it is impossible for them to convey the depths of psychological and intellectual exploration that such lines contain. Bligh’s pacing was variable: at times he handled the verse well, notably in the first lines of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Elsewhere his performance became hasty, marked not only by faults of rhythm but, more seriously, by errors in the words themselves. The physical and mental demands of a one-man show of this nature are vast, but audiences for “versions” of Shakespeare are disproportionately likely to have a thorough knowledge of the text under interpretation – so mistakes stand out.
Yet A One-Man Hamlet has its strengths. Cowie’s pruning and restructuring creates the impression of a play akin to a single, very long soliloquy, and gives added prominence to the set-piece speeches. The show opens with, “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt”, throwing an immediate emphasis on the self-destructive impulse that drives the whole piece. The “self-slaughter” that Hamlet dreams of at the play’s opening becomes a reality by default at the end. There is no other actor to kill him; Bligh’s Hamlet dies by his own hand. Cowie’s adaptation – like Greg Doran’s 2008 production for the RSC – follows the First Quarto ordering of some key scenes, so that the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy falls much earlier in the play, preceding the arrival of the players. The effect is to create a Hamlet who is more distressed, and sooner. Indeed, apart from some incongruous mincing with which he greets the imagined entrance of Claudius and Gertrude during the Mousetrap scene, there is little sign of the antic disposition.
On the contrary, Bligh’s Hamlet plays very little – because he has no-one onstage to whom he can direct Hamlet’s wit, or upon whom he can work the quintessentially Hamletian trick of enforced discomfiture. What are we left with, when there is no Ophelia, no Polonius, and neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern? But for the weapon with which he dances out a solitary fight scene, this Hamlet has no foils: he is a much lonelier figure, and a less amusing one. He does not seduce us, as Hamlets often have, but above all stirs in the audience a half-recoiling pity for his pathology, desolating and egocentric as it is. Since he never speaks to anyone other than (rarely) the audience, he seems mad indeed.
Elements of Cowie’s adaptation deliver telling, insightful angles on a play which has become almost too familiar, so that responding to it in the present day requires a specialised form of mental preparatory work, a bit like drawing a well-known face from memory. There will never, one hopes, cease to be a place for the long Hamlet in theatres across the world, but an adapted Hamlet such as this one serves a dual purpose, as both a piece of dramatic art in its own right and an interpretive tool for its Shakespearean ancestor. At Ophelia’s funeral, for lack of a Laertes, Bligh’s Hamlet addresses his competitive mourning to the audience. The audience is, of course, relatively unmoved, since they have not even seen Ophelia; her presence is signalled aurally with a song created by the Irish-Norwegian duo, Secret Garden, but that is all we get. All theatrical mourning is “pretend”, however good the show, for nothing can approximate the physical and mental annihilation of raw grief – but A One-Man Hamlet cuts off even the imagined participation in which audiences watching a tragedy expect to share. This Hamlet achieves his wish: he is the mourner supreme, without a rival, frozen in consummate loneliness.
A One-Man Hamlet is a stark production: a black stage, few props, unobtrusive modern dress. There is nothing to take our minds off Bligh’s disintegration. His Hamlet is a man tortured not by external agents but by himself, and the play feels at times like a drawn-out suicide. Strikingly, the moment of Hamlet’s death acquires a literalness absent from the Shakespearean original. “The rest is silence,” Hamlet murmurs as he dies, only to be followed (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) by Horatio’s invocation of singing angels, a drum, a march within, and the “soldiers’ music” with which Fortinbras, soon to be the new ruler, proposes to honour him. In Cowie’s version, there is no Horatio and no Fortinbras – Hamlet ends at the moment of Hamlet’s ending. Perhaps, in a sense, it always has? The long-term value of adaptations like Cowie’s is to prompt such questions, forcing us to reconsider the function and the theatricality of Shakespearean art. Should we look for Hamlet rooted in the social world of antique Denmark – a world where the succession naturally comes to the fore again in the play’s final moments – or in the depths of the mind itself? This thought-provoking contribution to the Fringe is not without flaws, but it is nevertheless a worthwhile addition to 2012’s panoply of Shakespearean reworkings.
*** 3/5 Stars
One-Man Hamlet is playing at C aquila as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets see the C venues website.