Review: Hamlet and the Movement of Emotion
The Northern Ballet’s interpretation of Hamlet gave me plenty of questions. How can you recreate a complex play with rich language without words? Can you recreate the great soliloquies? Will ballet deliver the narrative? Past efforts to recreate Hamlet in Ballet have not been successful.
The other question is over ballet itself. Before that night I’d never been to a ballet and I make no excuses for not knowing my Avant from my Entrechat.
I had another question. Why should Shakespeare have a monopoly on Hamlet? It existed before the Bard and borrows from other tales. Moving the setting to Nazi occupied Paris and switching the royal house of Denmark to the home of the Chief of Police takes the story on without overshadowing the tragedy.
Reading the programme notes I saw the phrase “the better the music, the better the ballet”. How true this seemed with a score from Philip Feeney that created pace, movement and, at times, unsettling change.
To me it evoked the music of the silent films, only heightened by the appearance of Tobias Batley as Hamlet, a gaunt white face with heavy dark eyes and a blank expression. With a downturned mouth it reminded me of the luckless Buster Keaton, although little humour would follow. The black and white set was a battle between light and dark, shadows and spotlights in the oppressive Quarry Theatre.
It opens with Hamlet’s return to occupied Paris. The confusion of the crowds stirs memories that intertwine with the present in David Nixon’s slick choreography. The score rattles by, unraveling the dystopia in front of Hamlet.
Movement seems to coincide with emotion throughout with flickers of dance interspersing the narrative. The horror builds with every new discovery whilst the memory of his father follows Hamlet like a ghost.
These dream-like sequences link to the theme of sleep in the play. How easy it is to sleep for eternity than face the horrors of the present. Yet Hamlet is frozen by fear and his own cowardice to take the final step or even to avenge his Uncle.
Many of the dance sequences explore the many complex relationship; Hamlet and his father, Gertrude and her new husband, Hamlet and Ophelia – exploring the personal space between each other.
Laertes’ relationship with his sister is protective and close- a little too close. One key scene sees Hamlet and Laertes battle for Ophelia’s affections with Hamlet winning. Later the dance is echoed in a battle between Hamlet and her father where Ophelia choses her father.
Many key scenes remain despite being half the length of the stage play. Hamlet’s confrontation of his mother is done tastefully without losing the inappropriateness and anger of his actions. However, there are no players.. The feigned madness of Hamlet to catch the King is more akin to ur-Hamlet than the bard. His Keaton-esque demeanour resurfacing to display a short piece of physical comedy.
The emotional stakes were raised in the second half and with it the dance. The standout dance was Ophelia’s performance showing her decent into madness offering Nazi flags, instead of flowers, to the collaborators and searching for that face she longed for.
Although the performance was exemplary, the ending diverged from Shakespeare’s version. I personally felt the ballet missed a few tricks. This isn’t to detract from an overall performance that left the audience giving a rapturous and lengthy ovation, particularly to the precise and commanding performance from Tobias.
One point also worth making is the performance’s of Horsforth’s own Josh Barwick and Bradford’s Lori Gilchrist holding more than their own in a cast drawn from around the world.
As someone not drawn to the world of ballet, I’d heartily recommend it. You might need to read the programme notes beforehand, particularly if you don’t know the play. A good first introduction for me, although remember, it’s only recommended for over twelve’s.ballet, david nixon, Hamlet, leeds, northern ballet, philip feeney, shakespeare, sheffield lyceum theatre, tobias batley, West Yorkshire Playhouse