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Review of The Mysterious First Text of Hamlet at The Cockpit Theatre

The Mysterious First Text of William Shakespeare's HamletTucked away amongst the antique shops and abandoned pubs behind Edgware Road station and just off Lisson Grove is Gateforth Street and the wonderful Cockpit Theatre. On My previous visits I have encountered a floor-level thrust stage with four rows of comfortable bench seating. On this occasion Ilissos theatre company performs in-the-round (actually a square) showing the true flexibility of this superb space.

The Mysterious First Text of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has the feel of a first draft. Whilst it is entirely plausible to look at a first attempt at what is arguably the greatest play ever written, one wonders whether we would stage the first draft of, say, a classic Pinter or Beckett or perhaps Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I’m not even sure that Tom Stoppard would allow that to happen. One thing I am absolutely certain of is that Samuel Beckett whilst alive, and the Estate of Samuel Beckett now, would never allow a first draft of Waiting For Godot or Endgame or Krapp’s Last Tape to be performed, or the text as published to be altered in any way (as director Charles Ward will be well aware).

So should we be doing it with Shakespeare? Having watched this show with interest my view is a very definite “No”. Seriously, this is not “Hamlet”. We have what can only be described as the pre-butchering of some of the greatest lines of dramatic poetry ever written – “What a dunghill I am” for “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” simply does not cut it and “Go to a nunnery” instead of “Get thee to a nunnery” somehow lacks the same urgency, intolerance and tinge of madness; and additionally the plot evolution and character development of the real “Hamlet” simply do not exist.

Hamlet’s Mother, Gertred (sic), is a mere cypher in the play and has nothing of the intriguing, enigmatic personality of the non-original; and Hamlet himself – not helped by Nicholas Limm’s’s break-neck speed delivery – seems to have no doubts, no fears, no deep-seated psychoses.

But as well as presenting this pre-edited version of the text, what is it about Shakespeare that apparently gives companies, from the RSC to Ilissos, the licence to muck about with the concept in ways that would never be acceptable in other work? Costume Designer Ivan Alexander Todorov does not dress this show in Elizabethan costume: that is fine. It is a modern dress production: that is fine. But it’s a modern-dress-with-a-quirk production. The cast wear modern shirts and T shirts and dress shirts and denim shirts. Some of the cast wear denim jackets. Ofelia (sic) wears denim hot pants. Most of the male characters wear denim jeans of various hues. But they are not ordinary jeans. They are fully-riveted, sawn-off jeans, gathered at the knee, with buttons and knee-length football socks tucked in and worn inside their very modern shoes. Not all the cast wear sawn-off jeans.

Some wear full-length jeans. For example Rossencraft (sic) is sawn-off whilst Gilderstone (sic) is full-length. Why? Is this some fashionista-inspired quasi-Danish haberdashery USP? I’ve been to Denmark. I never saw anyone dressed like that. I also have a book of costumes throughout the ages. This particular combo – purple shirt, blue denim jacket and charcoal sawn-off jeans for example (worn by the un-named King) never features. Would the show be materially (sorry) altered if all abandoned their sawn-offs for full-lengths? No. Breeches, which I assume is the template being sought here, might work. Possibly. With appropriate accoutrements. But sawn-off jeans don’t.

Another distraction was what was described to me as the “Rostrum Ballet”. Three weighty four-by-two slabs of steel-deck were heaved, pushed, tipped, rolled, flipped, up-ended, slid and dragged by the cast throughout the proceedings – often to no discernible purpose. By the end of the run Ilissos is either going to be an extremely muscle-bound company or there are going to be some serious back problems. I’m all for innovative ideas: but I like to see the point.

Hot-pants-clad Ofelia is played to excellent effect by Maryam Grace: she variously plucks violin strings and guitar strings and heart-strings with her mournfully prescient ballads. John Hyatt as Corambis (aka Polonius) is a fully paid-up member of the bumbling fool school of acting with extra added bumble: you’re never quite sure if he’s immersed in an extended bumble-ramble or has just forgotten his lines – never a good look. And the sotto voce un-named King (the Claudius equivalent) wears an inquisitive look throughout the show as if he’s thinking “Why am I wearing this denim jacket paired with these ridiculous sawn-off jeans?”

Talking of Stoppard, he’d be shocked to learn that his favourite line in Hamlet doesn’t exist in the “Mysterious First Text” which means he might well have found himself writing various drafts of a play called: “Rossencraft and Gilderstone have been despatched in England, Mother, because I had my father’s seal ring with me”.

My own feeling is that this text is not a first draft at all. I believe it to be a bowdlerised version of the original as set down by paid scribes in the audience for a rival company to Shakespeare’s own Kings Men at the Globe – a common practice in the Elizabethan theatre. Apparently this version was type-set by a printer’s apprentice, John Leason, as his first job in the “fiendishly complicated process” of setting type. Perhaps he was given this text as a try-out to earn his spurs before he was allowed to be let loose on the real stuff. As with most Shakespearean myths we just don’t know – we have no single text of any of his plays in his own hand.

What we do know is that Hamlet is a great play – and this version isn’t. And now I’ll say it because this text doesn’t: “Goodnight, Sweet Prince”.

3 Star Review

Review by Peter Yates

Produced and presented by Ilissos
Hosted by The Cockpit

It’s the Hamlet you may never have heard of: compact, active, and the first version printed in Shakespeare’s name. It vanished for two centuries, until a copy turned up in a broom cupboard, causing a sensation.

Is it Shakespeare’s first draft, a pirate forgery, or the play that enthralled audiences four hundred years ago? Leave your certainties at the door, as you meet Hamlet in a startling new dramatic light.

Tuesday 5th to Saturday 30th April 2016, excluding Sundays and Mondays.


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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1 thought on “Review of The Mysterious First Text of Hamlet at The Cockpit Theatre”

  1. I am not a critic but I believe this comment to be factually incorrect. Any Beatles fan will explain how very important and exciting it was to have the Anthologies produced showing the early formation of those excellent songs. Who can truly say that this was not such an experiment? I went to this production last night and would thoroughly recommend it. I have not seen Hamlet in the extended and traditional format but am now encouraged to do so. Perhaps it would be as well to look at this production as a door opening to the uninitiated such as me and indeed may be far more accessible as a first introduction to Shakespeare.

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