By way of an hors d’oeuvre to the forthcoming Screen Plays season Classics on TV: Jacobean Tragedy on the Small Screen at BFI Southbank, this post is devoted to a controversial 1960s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Jacobean tragedy season, which opens with Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women on Monday 25 March, includes the remarkable Hamlet at Elsinore (1964) which is being screened on Monday 1 April. Directed by Philip Savile on location in Denmark, this production has a cast including Christopher Plummer and Michael Caine playing a full-ish text across nearly three hours.
The drama known as The Marowitz Hamlet, a ‘condensed’ version of which was filmed by the BBC in 1969, could not be more different. In the rather compromised television version that has survived, this has a radically re-worked and fractured text, startlingly stylised playing, a white box for a set and the small cast in modern dress with heavy make-up. Hamlet here is challenging and experimental, and, despite being only available in a faded 16mm copy, of considerable interest.
The Marowitz Hamlet on stage
Born in 1934 and still active today as a writer, the American critic and director Charles Marowitz was the co-founder in 1954 of Encore. This London-based magazine chronicled the city’s ‘new drama’ that developed after John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956, and Marowitz was soon involved as a creator as well as a commentator. In early 1964 Marowitz worked with Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company on the twelve-week ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ workshop season at the New LAMDA Theatre. Inspired by the ideas of the French provocateur Antonin Artaud, the offerings included Marowitz’s 28-minute adaptation of Hamlet. ‘Our Drama Critic’ for The Times described the provocation in the feature ‘Opening the door to experiment in the theatre’:
Splitting up the soliloquies for two speakers, reallocating speeches for ironic effect (‘Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’, spoken as an aside by Hamlet about Polonius), freely rearranging the order of events (‘From this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth’, spoken as Hamlet’s final lines to jeers from the Court), it was accessible only to audiences capable of mentally counterpointing it against the original text. On those terms it was a thrilling and perfectly legitimate act of interpretation, transforming the drama into a nightmare of the dying hero. (19 February 1964, p. 13)
In 1965 Marowitz’s new company In-Stage Group toured an expanded version of this Hamlet to Berlin and it was also seen in Italy and Sweden. When the text was published by Marion Boyars in 1968, Irving Wardle praised it as ‘a work of great speed and dexterity with a solidly thought-out subtext’ (‘Hamlet in a permissive age’, The Times, 6 April 1968, p. 19).
The following year Marowitz played Hamlet at the Open Space Theatre in Tottenham Court Road, along with a cut-up collage of Macbeth. Marowitz was Artistic Director of the company, and directed both Hamlet and Macbeth, and Thelma Holt, who is the doyenne of theatrical producers today, was Executive Director and occasional actress. The designers were John Napier and Len Drinkwater, and a selection of images of the staging by photographer Donald Cooper (one of which is reproduced here) can be found at the ahds performing arts collections web page. Ronald Bryden, drama critic of The Observer, was enthusiastic about this 1969 revival:
It’s staged on a bare white platform like a circus ring, with Hamlet (Nikolas Simmonds) a white-faced little Everyclown swapping music-hall patter (‘Not where he eats but where he is eaten’) with a baggy, red-nosed Polonius-Gravedigger. Ophelia becomes a nymphet doll in socks and ponytails. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a double-talk duo in parti-coloured faces… The result is a kaleidoscope of astonishingly rich insights and relevance. (‘McLuhan in command’, 20 July 1969, p. 23)
The most detailed response to The Marowitz Hamlet is contained in Jinnie Schiele’s book Off-centre Stages: Fringe Theatre at the Open Space and the Round House, 1968-1983 (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006). Schiele concludes the discussion with this link to Marowitz’s intentions:
One of the things Marowitz claimed his collage work accomplished was ‘to find a way of transmitting speed in the theatre’. If the play Hamlet was to reflect our lives today, he argued, then it must in some way suggest the ‘relentless, insatiable motor-power that makes the world move as quickly as it does’. The incessant changing of images, location and personality kept the tension high and demanded intense concentration from the audience. (p. 27)
One further characterisation of the play can be found at Charles Marowitz’s website Marowitz Theatre, which contains this summary alongside his other collage responses to Shakespeare including A Macbeth, An Othello, The Shrew and Variations on Merchant of Venice:
A 90-minute ‘collage’ assembled from different scenes of Shakespeare”s original play which posits a highly unromantic version of the lead character. Hamlet as seen through the prism of the central character”s mentally besieged consciousness.
The Marowitz Hamlet on television
At 10.55pm on 30 December 1969, BBC2 broadcast an edition of its regular magazine strand Late-Night Line-Up which was devoted to The Marowitz Hamlet. According to the BFI’s authoritative ScreenOnline, ‘Late-Night Line-Up discussed Charles Marowitz’s collage reinvention of the play, with filmed examples performed by the Open Space Theatre Company describes the programme’. But what is preserved in the BBC film archive is a 59-minute fully-edited film of much of the production, including its opening and closing.
Frustratingly the film print has no titles or credits (these would have been added in the studio for a live transmission), and no music either, but the BBC Motion Gallery catalogue of the archive (free registration necessary) includes the following cast list, including Thelma Holt as Gertrude together with Nikolas Simmonds (Hamlet), Christopher Cazenove (Fortinbras), Gordon Whiting (Ghost), Lindsay Campbell (King), Edward Phillips (Clown-Polonius), Natasha Pyne (Ophelia), Eric Allan (Laertes), Ian Price (Rosencrantz) and Ralph Arliss (Guildenstern). (I would love to be able to complement these names with the television production team, and Screen Plays would be delighted to hear from anyone who was involved in the filming.)
The film appears to have been shot at the Open Space Theatre on 16mm (from which the colour has faded in the available viewing copy). It is hard to determine whether more than a single camera was used, and it may be that the production was run several times to facilitate shots from a range of angles. Punctuating the action are close-ups of Hamlet’s face in white make-up with a coloured tear staring into the lens. These, we assume, are the indicators that the action is taking place in his disturbed mind, perhaps as jumbled memories or as a dream.
The performances are almost consistently broad and loud, with seemingly little attempt to recalibrate them for the camera. But as an extended account of this production, the film is of significant interest as well as being a reminder that not all presentations of theatre plays on television are to be found within ‘drama’ strands.
The Marowitz Hamlet as television has a value not only as a document of this particular production but also as a trace of a vibrant moment in recent British theatre which otherwise went largely unrecorded on either the small screen or the large. The late 1960s was the moment at which disparate strands of fringe theatre began to make a mark on the mainstream. Colin Chambers attempts to characterise the impact of the fringe in his book Other Spaces: New Theatre and the RSC (London: Eyre Methuen and TQ Publications, 1980):
Significant early manifestations of this influence included the 1967 visit of Café La Mama and the Open Theatre; the opening the following year of the Arts Lab, which spawned the People Show, Pip Simmons, and the Freehold; Portable Theatre, and Marowitz’s Open Space… women’s theatre, black theatre, gay theatre, theatre-in-education, physical theatre, community theatre, lunchtime theatre, and so on. (pp. 7-8)
Driven by the experimental imperatives of the fringe, The Marowitz Hamlet has no time for the nineteenth-century naturalistic conventions of mainstream theatre. These were the dominant forms that television inherited from the theatre and with little modification applied consistently to the presentation of almost all classic dramas including the plays of Shakespeare. But The Marowitz Hamlet works with distinct theatrical traditions, with commedia dell-arte, with pantomime, and with the stylisations of circus and music-hall. As such it can in a modest way be seen to be as significant a challenge to the dominant forms classic plays on television as the original theatre production was to the theatre of its time.