Joyce McMillan: Can you have Hamlet without Shakespeare?

Joyce McMillan. Picture: TSPL
Joyce McMillan. Picture: TSPL
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The play’s the thing, so Hamlet tells us, in one of the many phrases from Shakespeare’s best-loved tragedy that have made their way into everyday English.

Yet one of the thrllling things about theatre is the element of mystery about where exactly “the play” exists; whether it’s in the full text as the author wrote it, or in the story told through the text, or only in performance, when “the play” becomes a living thing, between actors and audience.

So it was strangely interesting, last weekend, to be at Cumbernauld Theatre for the opening performance of Iain Heggie’s new take on Hamlet, a 75-minute monologue version of Shakespeare’s story brilliantly titled Tragic (When My Mother Married My Uncle). By chance or design, the Tragic tour – set to travel on next week to Bathgate, Kilmarnock and Summmerhall in Edinburgh – coincides perfectly with the current powerful mainstage version of Hamlet playing at the Citizens’ Theatre. And since Heggie’s play, created through workshops with RCS students, is essentially a rewrite of Shakespeare’s drama in a youthful 21st century Glasgow demotic (“Dad’s ghost was like, d’you know how I died, Hamlet? Because I didnae just die in my sleep...”), it raises a whole series of powerful questions about how much of Shakespeare survives, when we strip away the breathtaking poetry through which the story was first told, and cast it in very different words.

That there are high risks involved in this process is obvious, particularly when the writer of the new version is not translating into a foreign language, but tangling with the complex hierarchy of different forms of English within which we live. For better or worse – and regardless of how Shakespeare’s language was seen in his own day – most people across the English-speaking world now view Shakespeare’s texts as rarefied works, hard to understand, but high in status; so that when they hear those works recast in familiar everyday language, they often laugh, as if they were being presented with a parody or spoof. There’s also the niggling question of aristocracy; no prince ever lived who spoke in the Glasgow tones of Heggie’s Hamlet, and it’s worth exploring whether there is something in the aristocratic voice – a roundness, a forwardness, a confident breath control – that fundamentally distinguishes it from the street speak of big working-class cities like Glasgow.

Yet despite the risks – and the occasional wobbly moment of bathos – there’s no doubt that Tragic navigates its way around these dangers, to create a moving and absorbing version of the story. The compelling outlines of the plot – the father’s death, the mother’s hasty remarriage, the heavy demand that the hero avenge his father – remain absolutely untouched by the loss of Shakespeare’s poetry; Sean Purden Brown gives a fast-moving, tightly-focused solo performance that forbids too much comic self-indulgence, and Heggie himself is enough of a poet to cast some low-key beauty out of the story of Hamlet’s troubled life, and painfully early death.

On balance, I think I’d still rather have my Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s words; Dominic Hill’s thrilling new Citizens’ production offers a near-complete and very lightly modernised version of the text, and a Hamlet – in Brian Ferguson – who explores every nuance of the familiar words he speaks, making them new again with each performance. And in the moment of creation, back in 1599, the action and the language must clearly have been as one in Shakespeare’s mind; the play draws its enduring strength from the words in which it was first made, and would not exist without them.

Yet as centuries of successful translation show, there is also something in these mighty plays that transcends the detail of the original language and lives on, no matter how we rough-hew the text. And when we rework it with as much thought and wit as Heggie brings to Tragic, then we diminish the tragedy of Hamlet not at all; and only add to its ever-expanding repertoire of rich and varied theatrical lives.