Miles Kington: Sticking Vanya's nose where it doesn't belong

With Ophelia as a teenager, Hamlet's age lent him something of the predatory paedophile
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The Independent Online

I suppose they were just being pulled on invisible strings, but to the audience it looked as if they were moving under their own steam. When the stage was empty of actors, the scenery would go into fast motion and and then settle down just before the next characters entered. The audience grew fond of the scenery, and began to cheer each time it moved. Towards the end of the play, we began to find it unbearably funny and would go into shrieks of laughter every time the cubic dance took place.

It must have been disturbing for the cast and directors to hear their deadly serious and tragic enactment of this tale of honour and dignity arousing such hails of laughter. I am told that after the first hilarious night, the director gathered the actors together, and said that they would now have to choose whether to play it straight or for laughs. They opted, unwillingly, for laughs.

My wife, who has seen more theatre than I have, says this is not that uncommon. She once saw a West End production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in which Vanya was unusually small, and when he clasped Elena to him, his nose was just high enough to disappear into her bosom. This made the audience laugh unexpectedly, after which they could not stop. At the curtain call, the audience was all merriment and the cast bowed with icy hatred.

It is possible to cross the tragic/comic divide even when reading novels. I was once asked to review Vikram Seth's novel about classical music, An Equal Music, in which the star female pianist in a chamber group starts going deaf. As she can still play as well as ever, the other members have to cover for her and devise an elaborate series of signals so that (scarcely being able to hear the music) she knows where to come in. The intent was tragic, but I kept seeing ways in which the presence of a deaf musician in a group could be wildly hilarious, and I even roared with laughter now and then during the most poignant of scenes.

Which brings me to Hamlet, and the Michael Bogdanov production for the Wales Theatre Company, in a Welsh and English version. Because it is part of my son's A-Level studies, we went to see the production in Cardiff last week, and we were fascinated by what seemed a totally inappropriate casting. The actor playing Hamlet was not young - indeed, with Ophelia played as a teenager, his age lent him something of the predatory paedophile; he was rather short, his shortness accentuated by the casting of lofty actors as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; he also seemed to be out of condition and even takes a welcome breather rest once or twice during the final duel.

"Bogdanov is a good director," my wife said to me. "So what is he up to? Bits of that production are nearer to pantomime than Shakespeare."

"Maybe it is ironic," I said. "Maybe he is doing the first ironic, postmodernist, self- piss-taking version of Hamlet. Every Hamlet wants to play the clown, that sort of thing."

"Do you think so?" she said.

"It's possible. The audience laughed a lot. They even roared with laughter when Polonius was killed in the curtain."

"Yes, but this was a Wednesday matinée, and the audience was mostly school parties. They see things differently."

"Maybe they've got a special version for school matinées," I said. "If they've got one version in English and another in Welsh, they could have a third version of Hamlet for schools, just going for the laughs."

"Is that likely?"

I said nothing. I wait to hear if my Welsh readers know something that I do not know.