It feels somehow improper to witness an author groping for the right words

The early stages of a literary work are often of immense interest. It is perhaps a rather tawdry kind of interest, like paparazzi shots of a Hollywood starlet taking the bins out before she’s put her make-up on. Of course it’s extraordinary to think that some of the most famous characters, events and lines in literature weren’t as we now know them but had to be struggled towards. Sometimes these efforts have the anachronistic but unavoidable sense of somebody getting it wrong. Textual bibliographers have carefully classified the different steps a work takes from manuscript to first edition and subsequent versions. Perhaps we could go further in search of a

Hamlet fans will love this: Re-Member Me, at Hampstead Theatre, reviewed

A puzzle at Hampstead Theatre. Literally, a brain teaser. Its new production, Re-member Me, is a one-man show written and performed by Dickie Beau, whose name is a punning allusion to a bow tie. The oddly spelled word, ‘re-member’ refers to the process of reassembling the separated limbs of a dramatic character during the rehearsal process. The poster for the production centres on Mr Beau dressed in 1980s sports gear and wearing a T-shirt blazoned with the logo of ‘Wittenberg University’, written in German. Enfolding his skull is a rainbow headband. These details tell us that the play examines the character of Hamlet with a particular focus on the travails

The Dane gets an interpretive dance makeover: Ian McKellan’s Hamlet reviewed

Ian McKellen’s Hamlet is the highlight of Edinburgh’s opening week. In this experimental ballet, Sir Ian speaks roughly 5 per cent of the lines, accompanied by a hunky blond dancer, Johan Christensen, who offers a physical interpretation of the Dane’s melancholy. The other roles are played by a ballet troupe in olde worlde costumes. The performing area is a black thrust stage, gleaming like patent leather, surrounded by low spotlights and swirling dry ice. It looks like Elsinore recreated by a cruise-ship designer. Newcomers will find the story mystifying. Hamlet smoulders longingly at Horatio and they dance like a hot couple at a gay night spot. The middle-aged Laertes seems

Lloyd Evans

Northern exposure | 11 August 2016

As the festival grows, the good acts are harder to find and the prices keep rising to meet the throngs of showbiz refugees who surge north in the belief that the glory, this year, will be theirs. Arriving at my one-star hovel (no breakfast, no towels, shared bathroom), I was given a security key and a disc of see-through soap that I could have hidden beneath a tea-bag. The bill, payable in advance, was a third higher than last year. Glory in this city belongs to the landlord. Marcel Lucont’s Whine List is performed by a suave, self-adoring Frenchman who starts by asking if anyone in the crowd is new

All a bit Blackadder: Hamlet, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, reviewed

Never Not Once has a cold and forbidding title but it starts as an amusing tale set in an LA apartment. We meet Allison, a happily married lesbian, whose grown-up daughter, Eleanor, arrives with a hunky new boyfriend to show off. This set-up has the makings of a flatshare sitcom. You combine a straight younger couple with an older pair of lesbians and you throw in the mother/daughter relationship for extra instability. It could be a laugh. But a new wrinkle appears. Eleanor learns that she was conceived during a one-night stand and she decides to track down her absentee father. But he’s extremely reluctant to discuss what happened that

A triumph: Young Vic’s Hamlet reviewed

Here goes. The Young Vic’s Hamlet, directed by Greg Hersov, is a triumph. This is a pared-back, plain-speaking version done with captivating simplicity and perfect trust in the text. The star is Shakespeare and the production merely opens up an aperture to his dazzling account of human greatness and frailty. The action takes place on a small, level stage that could be covered by two bedspreads. Designer Anna Fleischle adds an oblong arch of distressed stone along with three tall blocks that rotate to create internal hiding places, corridors and cubby-holes. That’s all she needs to suggest a house of horrors, a court of nightmares, a royal palace beset by

Ian McKellen is riveting: Hamlet, at Theatre Royal Windsor, reviewed

Ian McKellen in his early eighties plays the Dane in his mid-twenties. A production with such a strange innovation should be conventional in all other details so that the virtues and demerits of the experiment can be judged in the right context. But Sean Mathias’s show adds extra puzzles. Elsinore is a modern palace ruled by Claudius, in a charcoal suit, and Gertrude in a chic emerald dress, pinched at the waist. Nice togs. But the audience knows how a constitutional monarchy works and that a rightful heir succeeds automatically and peacefully. So why are these murderous nutcases roaming the corridors plotting to slit each other’s throats? That contradiction goes

Return to gender

Regime change at the Globe. The new boss, Michelle Terry, wants a 50/50 ratio of males to females in each production. Rather eccentric. Why cast a drama to reflect the distribution of sexual organs across the general populace? Imagine hiring an orchestra to represent the ratio of citizens who can play an instrument. And didn’t the process of examining actor’s genitals at auditions land Harvey Weinstein in a spot of bother? Ms Terry’s gender fixation is called, curiously enough, ‘gender-blind casting’. She inaugurates her reign at the Globe by offering us a production of Hamlet in which, perhaps with a nod to gender-blind casting, she plays the lead. No one

Wholly gripping: Glyndebourne on Tour’s Hamlet reviewed

Hamlet Theatre Royal, Norwich, and touring until 1 December I had mixed feelings about Brett Dean’s Hamlet as I went into the Theatre Royal in Norwich and mixed feelings when I came out of it: unfavourable, largely, on the way in and favourable, largely, on the way out.  I am still left wondering why a composer would want to set this amazing, flawed and most memorable of tragedies to music, but more than one hundred have, so presumably they must feel they can add something, or alter something, or even improve it in some way. The librettist Matthew Jocelyn, working closely with the composer at every stage, has bitten the

Keeping it in the family

A new orthodoxy governs the casting process in Hollywood. An actor’s ethnicity must match the character’s. If you extend this decree to Shakespeare, you need Macbeth to be played by a Highlander, Shylock by a Venetian Jew, Richard III by an English hunchback and Cleopatra by an Egyptian who has slept with her brother. As for Hamlet, the play can only be entrusted to a family of incestuous Scandinavians. Gyles Brandreth (whose name means ‘firebrand’ or ‘sword’ in old Norse) has anticipated the trend by staging a production alongside his son and his daughter-in-law. Benet Brandreth plays the Dane while his wife, Kosha, plays Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Laertes and Horatio.

Art of darkness | 15 June 2017

Brett Dean’s new opera for Glyndebourne is a big-hearted romantic comedy, sunny and life-affirming. Only joking — this is contemporary opera, after all. It’s about the usual stuff: neurosis, violence and toxic sexuality. Those seem to be the emotions most naturally suited to the language of mainstream contemporary classical music, and Dean speaks that language as brilliantly as Richard Strauss handled the idiom of an earlier generation. Whatever else this operatic adaptation of Hamlet might be, it’s a polished piece of work. That takes some doing: Shakespeare isn’t naturally suited to the opera house. It was Verdi’s librettist Boito who first realised that the best way to retain the essence

Books Podcast: Taking Hamlet around the world

This week’s Books Podcast turns to perhaps the greatest work of the greatest writer in English history. Yup: it’s Hamlet time. Specifically, I’m talking to the former artistic director of the Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, about his scheme to perform Hamlet in every country on the face of the earth – a two-year scheme whose rackety history and ultimate success he recounts in his fascinating new book Hamlet: Globe to Globe. A touring company taking Hamlet from Botswana to North Korea and all points in between? It sounds like the sort of thing you’d come up with after a few too many beers. Well, now that you mention it… You can

Ersatz erudition

Harry Potter, who uses the stage name Daniel Radcliffe, is a producer’s delight. By now it’s becoming clear that the four-eyed wizard lacks distinction as an actor. He’s not a comedian, certainly not a leading man or a heart-throb, and he hasn’t the ugliness or eccentricity to be a villain. But this Polyfilla quality means he can be dropped into anything without harming the fabric. His presence in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — a difficult and at times flimsy exhibition of varsity wit — is an insurance policy that will guarantee brisk business at the box office. He and his co-star Joshua McGuire play Hamlet’s faithless schoolfriends, who pootle

Changing of the Bard

Hamlet was probably written sometime between 1599 and 1602. The Almeida’s new version opens with a couple of security guards watching surveillance footage taken in a corridor. Well, of course it does. Nothing says ‘late medieval Denmark’ like closed-circuit television. Hamlet (Andrew Scott) appears. His black shirt and matching trousers suggest a snooker pro at the Crucible or a steward on a Virgin train. Scott is known as a ‘character actor’ (code for ‘baddie’) rather than a leading man. His petulant, squelched-up face and his Ronnie Corbett physique make him perfect casting for Third Crackhead in a squat melodrama but he hasn’t a chance of capturing Hamlet’s lordly despair, his

Listen with Mother

Ian McEwan’s novels are drawn to enclosed spaces. There is the squash court upon which the surgeon plays a meticulously described game in Saturday, and the honeymoon suite in a little seaside hotel for the awkward newlyweds in On Chesil Beach. In Atonement, the mother is kept in her bedroom by migraines while her daughter (spoiler alert) dies in a bomb-hit Underground station, and in the famous opening to his early novel Enduring Love a child is carried away in the basket of a hot air balloon. ‘Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies-to-be, in confined spaces,’ he writes in his new novel Nutshell, which is — oddly

Shakespeare’s crowning glory

In the 18th century, as Shakespeare began to take on classic status, editors began to notice differences between the texts of the plays preserved by his fellow actors in the posthumously published First Folio of his Comedies, Histories & Tragedies and those that had been published in the playwright’s lifetime in the cheap pocket editions, analogous to modern paperbacks, known in the trade as Quartos. In the case of King Lear, the subject of Sir Brian Vickers’s new book, the Quarto of 1608 is strikingly different from the Folio of 1623. The Quarto has nearly 300 lines that are not in the Folio; the Folio has over 100 lines that

All the world’s a stage | 21 April 2016

In this much-heralded Shakespeare anniversary year, one might expect a certain respect for the works to prevail. In Holland it’s different. Under the tutelage of a Belgian, Ivo van Hove, a huge slice of Shakespeare’s history theatre has been filleted for the stage into something that might sit nicely on HBO alongside Game of Thrones. It opens at the Barbican on 22 April, a day before the official Shakespeare-death day four centuries ago. And it’s all in contemporary Dutch verse — four hours of it… Kings of War starts with a photo, on a video-screen, of little Prince George. His infant form is followed in rapid succession by that of

Kate Maltby


The feeding frenzy over the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has reached its peak. Recently we’ve had Shakespeare’s complete works performed through the puppetry of kitchenware. On books pages, you can read about everything from Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand (surprisingly beguiling) to Simon Andrew Stirling’s Shakespeare’s Bastard: A Life of Sir William Davenant (he wasn’t). Meanwhile, the Royal Mail is launching a set of stamps emblazoned with snappy quotations. And it’s this glib series that encapsulates the anniversary problem. Shakespeare’s beauty lies not in his maxims but in the complexity of every line; the power of context, character and plot to suggest myriad meanings, each one undercutting the

A mirror to the world

[audioplayer src=”http://feeds.soundcloud.com/stream/260046943-the-spectator-podcast-obamas-eu-intervention-the-pms.mp3″ title=”Lloyd Evans and Dr Daniel Swift discuss how Shakespeare died” startat=1008] Listen [/audioplayer]Who’s there? Shakespeare’s most famous play opens with this slightly hokey line, and the question remains for his countless audiences, biographers and scholars. Who was this man? What makes his works so apparently endless? Like the plays, his life is studded with riddles. Even the basic facts are slippery and over-determined. We do not, for example, know the date of Shakespeare’s birth. His baptism was recorded at Stratford on 26 April 1564, and since it was customary to baptise newborns quickly, it has been accepted that his birthday was 23 April. This is a nice coincidence:

Intolerable cruelty

It was a toss-up on Sunday between the atmosphere in the Radio Five Live Sports Extra studio in Kolkata for the last over of the cricket world cup (England versus West Indies) and the high-velocity drama of that evening’s episode of The Archers. Which was the more dramatic? In one room my husband was shouting at the radio, ‘Go on, Stokes!’ In another, an hour later, I was staggering towards an armchair, all thought of cooking dinner quite beyond me, after listening to the dénouement of the Helen and Rob story. Who would have thought radio could be so dangerous to the blood pressure? In the heat of the moment,