Hamlet's Elsinore Revisited

By Berry, Ralph | Contemporary Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Hamlet's Elsinore Revisited


Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review


SCENE, the courtyard of Kronborg Castle. 'The air bites shrewdly, it is very cold', says Hamlet. Horatio agrees: 'It is a nipping and an eager air'. The Danes, knowing their climate, have brought blankets to huddle in and hire more at the interval. But it is still a notable occasion. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre has brought its Hamlet to Kronborg Castle, Helsingor -- Shakespeare's Elsinore. And Kronborg owns the birth certificate of Hamlet.

For the English players have been here before. In 1585 they toured in Helsingor and were a sensation. The citizens tore down a hoarding for a better view. It cost the Town Council 4 skilling to repair the damage. The English players followed up this success, and next season they fixed up a summer gig at the Royal Palace. Their names are still there on the Danish payroll. Three of them became Shakespeare's colleagues - Will Kempe, George Bryan, and Thomas Pope. When they came back to England they talked about their touring experiences, as actors do. Shakespeare listened. He gained a set of first-hand accounts of a castle, which became stage directions embedded in the text of Hamlet.

Hence Hamlet productions at Kronborg have a unique vibrancy. Modem memory goes back to Olivier, who in 1937 was due to star in Tyrone Guthrie's production in the castle courtyard with the Old Vic company. He was then in the throes of an intense affair with Vivien Leigh, who had insisted on joining the company at Helsingor to play Ophelia. 'We could not keep from touching each other', wrote Olivier. Rehearsals went well, but the summer weather was atrocious. At 7.30 on the first night, 'the rain was coming down in bellropes'. (Guthrie) Cancellation was impossible: it was a royal command performance, and the special train bearing the notables had already left Copenhagen. So Guthrie and Lilian Baylis decided to put on Hamlet in the ballroom of the Marienlyst Hotel.

The logistics were staggering. Buses carried the company to Kronborg Castle -- over a mile from the hotel -- where they gathered up costumes, props, make-up. All had to be packed up and transported to bedrooms at the hotel, in an hour and a half. Guthrie made a chalk circle in the centre of the ball-room to mark the playing area, and the press helped to arrange 870 basket chairs. As Alec Guinness remembered it (in Blessings in Disguise), the pocket-size stage had room for an upright piano, a potted palm, and a three-piece band. Guthrie delegated all staging details to Olivier, who took command with great verve. Guthrie's instructions to the players were terse. 'Suggest you use the platform for Claudius and Gertrude in the play scene. Get rid of the piano. I love the palm . . . Use any entrance you can find. Polonius, use the service door. When you are killed wrap yourself up in those vulgar velvet curtains. Rather startling. Be polite to Kings and Queens if they get in your way'.

Guinness had the most effective entrance in these extraordinary circumstances. 'Alec, make your entrance as Osric through the French windows'. 'But, Tony, they give on to the beach. There's a roaring wind, heavy seas and lashing rain'. 'Arrive wet. Very dramatic'. And it was so. Guinness had to wait his cue on the beach, soaked to the skin. His Danish dresser handed him a large schnapps. 'Skol! Then another schnapps. Skol! Tusen tak. Tak for tusen. Tit for tat. When I blew in through the French windows (which I shut very carefully) I was decidedly unsteady, more like a weary Greek messenger than a Tudor fop'.

Yet it all went superbly. The cast achieved miracles of improvisation, and the audience was totally caught up in 'the most exciting theatrical experience most of us had ever had', as Guinness remembered it. 'Royalty looked pleased, ambassadors clapped white-gloved hands', as Guthrie reported in his memoir (A Life in the Theatre). Then royalty 'climbed back into their limousines and retreated to the safety of Copenhagen, leaving the Marienlyst Hotel to our excited, undoubtedly drunken mercy. …

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