Review: How Different Is Shakespeare's First Draft Of Hamlet?

The First Hamlet, Cockpit Theatre ★★★☆☆

By Stuart Black Last edited 15 months ago
Review: How Different Is Shakespeare's First Draft Of Hamlet? The First Hamlet, Cockpit Theatre 3
Nicholas Limm as the Dane.

It sounds as implausible as a sub-plot in a Dan Brown novel: a forgotten early version of Shakespeare's play Hamlet went awol for 200 years before finally turning up in a soldier’s broom cupboard in 1823 (he being the Wildean sounding Sir Henry Bunbury), to then be dismissed by scholars as a “bad quarto” or even a forgery.

Whether it actually is a first draft is still controversial today (people like to think Shakespeare was too brilliant to shape work the way all other writers do). Now we have a rare chance to judge for ourselves with a new performance of this alternative text in the intimate Cockpit Theatre just off Edgware Road.

And the Ilissos theatre company have done a fairly solid job staging it — in the round with capable actors and a lively, intelligent lead in Nicholas Limm.

But the whole affair sounds very strange, considering we're all programmed to expect the lines we learned at school. Here “To be or not to be” is followed with “Aye there’s the point, to die, to sleep — is that all?” which sounds more like a northern farmer than a neurasthenic Scandinavian academic.

The plot is also slightly off with a more straightfoward Corambis standing in for the fussy Polonius, and the alternatively named duo of Rossencraft and Gilderstone getting a bit more to do. Other scenes are curtailed oddly and some connective tissue is missing altogether — Hamlet’s fatal trip to England is especially truncated. This version is 1,600 lines shorter than the official text, though be warned: it still runs for two and a half hours.

Overall, the effect is like watching a version of Hamlet from a parallel universe (you’d be forgiven for expecting Dwayne Dibley to show up). It feels like it’s a rush a lot of the time, very far from Laurence Olivier’s description of the play as “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”.

Ultimately, it felt to us like an earlier draft rather than a corrupted copy, though of course it’s impossible to tell for sure and discussion in the bar afterwards failed to produce much of a consensus.

Ilissos’s production itself is a deliberately simple one with very few props: three low podiums serving as chairs, beds and whatever else is needed — including the arras behind which Corambis is stabbed and a catwalk Ophelia can strut upon (she is played here as a kind of indie rock chick by Maryam Grace).

The performers are all decent but do tend to be quite static as they focus on getting the words right — which is perhaps fair enough as it must be quite galling to have to memorise the "wrong" version of the play. And the largely unfussy direction does mean the audience can concentrate on these wayward lyrics and misplaced soliloquies.

One flourish director Charles Ward imports to good effect is the use of blues soundtrack. While the fonky stomp feels incongruous at first, once it falls in synch with the emotion of the piece it does work — and it's a welcome change from the lame-o Elizabethan lute we usually have to put up with. The costumes are pretty horrible (jeans stuffed in tights?!) but we'll let that go.

An interesting experiment then, which freshens up a story too often told so we can reassess the core of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, and then decide whether it deserves its place at the top of the canon. That seems like a worthwhile conversation to have on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

Hamlet runs at the Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street NW8 8EH, until 30 April. Tickets £18/£14 concessions. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

The first quarto will be on show in the British Library's upcoming Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition.

Last Updated 09 April 2016