This will be long and involved, but I’m on my phone, so I apologise in advance.
So. I just saw the Belvoir St Hamlet, directed by Simon Stone, with Toby Schmitz as Hamlet. A group of Shakespeare students from uni went to a school matinee, with a Q and A afterwards. It was really really good — they focused on Hamlet’s grief, on bodies on stage and the ghosts that haunt the prince. By the end, it was in serious doubt how much of it was real, and how sane Hamlet really was. There was a lot more emphasis on Ophelia, and her relationship to Hamlet, and her family. I really did feel Laertes’ grief, and they played Ophelia’s madness as a parallel to Hamlet’s.
It was a tremendously trimmed production. No Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were conflated, no guards, a lot of compressions; and no Horatio. For what they were going for, I can see why they made this choice: not just to trim the cast down, but the lack of this friend made Hamlet seem (as one of the actors said afterwards) much more lonely, and hence, I think, more susceptible to the grief that plagues him. Only Hamlet, now, ever saw the ghost(s). And it had some significant benefits. Horatio’s lines, when uncut, went to other characters — the “thrift, thrift” exchange went to Ophelia, many lines went to the ghost, and some of his role was fulfilled by the Ros/Guil character. The attachment to Ophelia seemed much more genuine, then, and I got the sense that Hamlet really DID once care for Ros/Guil. (It didn’t hurt that his was one of the ghosts on stage.) I asked a question about how ingenuous (or not) his lines in the final scene sounded coming from the ghost’s mouth, and Schmitz answered well: that the ghost has got what if wants, now, but is realising the cost of it on his son.
Schmitz also said some interesting —in a bad way — things about Horatio. As he reads it, Horatio is too mercurial. Useful, dramaturgically, but hard to grasp, and perhaps unnecessary.
I disagree. Horatio, far from being mercurial, is stoic, and steady. He thinks a lot, and doesn’t say much, and is quiet and unobtrusive — to the point that, after Hamlet’s departure to England, the king and queen see fit to order him around like a courtier. He is somehow innately trustworthy. He’s a scholar straight from Wittenberg, a valuable outsider, and the only person Hamlet actually trusts. His words are always cautiously measured, but they are to soothe, to comfort, to help, and occasionally to remonstrate — “‘twere to consider too curiously”, for example, and his reactions to the news of Ros and Guil. He is far, far from unnecessary.
Throughout the production today, I kind of couldn’t stop thinking (beyond how much Schmitz resembles Cumberbatch in profile, and how freakishly attractive is Nathan Lovejoy) that none of this bloodbath would have happened as badly if Horatio had been there. Hamlet was obviously suffering, and in so much pain, and he was so LONELY. He needed help; the kind of help Horatio tries, in his own kind, quiet, subtle way, to offer.
This production didn’t suffer from it’s lack of Horatio; it used his absence well, in fact, to fulfill the version of the play they were trying to create. But Schmitz’s words seemed so off to me, and perhaps it’s just my obsession, but Horatio’s absence was all too tangible, for me, in Hamlet’s lonely and desperate descent.