The Arts: Theatre - A Prince among Menaces ; Recent Hamlets Have Been Intimate Domestic Dramas. Steven Pimlott Thinks It's Time to Put the Brutal Realpolitik Back in, He Tells Paul Taylor
Taylor, Paul, The Independent (London, England)
The director Steven Pimlott's association with Hamlet began early. At the tender age of 12, he gave what he wryly describes as a "definitive" Gertrude in the school play. ("In the middle of all my own Oedipal confusions, the chance to act out a mother was rather liberating. I genuinely felt I had an empathy with that role... ") His Hamlet on that occasion was the future television historian Michael Wood. From playing the hero's mum, Pimlott now moves on to acting as Hamlet's midwife. His new production, with Samuel West in the title part, opens tonight on the main stage at Stratford.
The approach he has taken to the tragedy builds, Pimlott tells me, on the work he and West did last year, when their version of Richard II launched This England, the RSC's epic sequence of eight Shakespeare histories, which is now reaching completion in London. That production, staged in the Other Place, which had been converted into a mercilessly clinical white box, showed us an unfamiliar aspect of Pimlott's talent. He has always been a vividly versatile and imaginative director, equally at home in opera (from the vast Earls Court Arena staging of Carmen, with Maria Ewing and Jose Carreras, to the delectably scandalous The Coronation of Poppea at ENO), in classics and new plays (he has directed three Phyllis Nagy premieres) and in musical comedy (in which he has coped with everything from flying animals in Doctor Dolittle to flying pointillist scenery in Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George).
But not even his agent would have claimed back then that Pimlott's productions had possessed a cutting political edge. His forte had been for projecting the psychological landscape of a play, as when he turned Richard III into the phantasmagorical nightmare of the central character, the events elapsing in some existential, Beckett-like limbo, and the protagonist less a master of political manipulation than a compulsive quick-change artist covering up an inner emptiness.
So Pimlott's Other Place version of Richard II, with a wonderfully caustic West, came as a bracing shock. Instead of the usual lyrical tragedy, it was a brutally lucid and objective look at the twists and turns of deadly realpolitik - as the usurper Bolingbroke, under a show of righting legitimate wrongs, staged a cunning coup d'etat - and at the human penalties of wielding power. The question of what England is and who owns it was contested directly and urgently with the audience, which at one point was intimidated into rising to its feet to join the manipulative Bolingbroke in his insincere grief at the death of a rival. The production, using just a few, emblematic props, stole the thunder of the Almeida production that opened a couple of weeks later in the converted Gainsborough Studios and seemed, by comparison, a throwback - a dated, dressy star-vehicle for Ralph Fiennes.
"Yes, I think there has been a change in me," agrees the affable, expansive Pimlott. "I've turned a bit inside out. I'd now say that an existential position is itself a political choice and a statement. I hadn't appreciated that before. I'm much more interested in the debate and in the social implications of the individual's existential decisions." So, bucking the recent trend of intimate, domestic Hamlets, which leave out the larger power considerations and excise all mention of Fortinbras, Pimlott's production will "embrace the political and the private. The [play] is actually about a state called Elsinore. It starts under Danish rule and it ends under Norwegian. This is the story of the play that we are going to tell."
Unlike those productions in Communist Eastern Europe in which Hamlet became the surrogate critic of what was rotten in the spectators' present- day state, …
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Publication information: Article title: The Arts: Theatre - A Prince among Menaces ; Recent Hamlets Have Been Intimate Domestic Dramas. Steven Pimlott Thinks It's Time to Put the Brutal Realpolitik Back in, He Tells Paul Taylor. Contributors: Taylor, Paul - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: May 2, 2001. Page number: 10. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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