Things have, of late, been rather grimdark for the Family Strange and so it was a great relief to, last night, go to the Glasgow Film Theatre to watch Maxine Peake as Hamlet. I’ve not seen Shakespeare performed since I was young -and then it was simply excerpts of various played put on to junior school age kids. This performance was recorded last year in Manchester and was, last night, shown simultaneously in a number of cinemas around the country. This has to be the first time I’ve ever been to the cinema and the show has had an interval -something that was greatly needed as Hamlet takes some three hours to perform.
It was a wonderful night and it was excellent to see C, who studied late medieval/renaissance theatre at Cambridge, get thoroughly excited about something that she is amazingly geeky about. Everything about the show absolutely blew me away. The performances were second to none, especially Maxine Peak as the titular tragic prince, the music, though overwhelming at times, really added to the sense of claustrophobia and madness which permeates the play. The show was so bloody powerful I honestly can’t describe it well -had I tried to write this last night it would have simply been the letters O, M, and G repeated with lots of exclamation marks. Maxine Peake dominated the stage, her presence as young Hamlet filling the space even when she was merely lolling in the background observing the other players on the stage.
I read a lot of Shakespeare when I was young, maybe 11 or 12 years old, and whilst I didn’t fully understand what I was reading there was always one verse from Hamlet which stayed with me -despite A Midsummer Night’s Dream being my favourite play. It comes in the second scene of Act II when Hamlet is reunited with his, two faced and ill fated, friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and recounts to them something of the depressive malady that has settled upon him.
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
The reason that this soliloquy has stuck with me over the years is that it near perfectly describes my understanding of the world. Intellectually I find humanity an amazing animal. We have wrought immense changes upon the planet no which we live, built cities and produced an abundance of food and material goods, we have created arts so beautiful it breaks the heart and literature to elevate the psyche to the heavens, our science explores the very beginnings and ends of all things. We gaze into the heavens at distant stars and galaxies and think that some day we shall walk there, we have grown to understand our own fragile form so intimately that we have managed to double the amount of time that an individual has between birth and life’s ending. We have walked on worlds that are not our own. We are as gods.
Yet despite this propensity for greatness we are as primitive and brutal as the gods of the holy books, we wage wars. We starve and enslave one another, we poison the wells from which we drink and the vast majority of us are denied access to the sweet fruits of human endeavour with little hope that this situation will be remedied before we are brought to our end. There is no hope, there is just this sterile promontory upon which delight, where it can be found, is fleeting -a mote of dust given life and light by a ray of the sun.
Our lives are so fleeting, blink and you’ll miss it, that to tilt at the windmills of capitalism seems to be a momentous waste of the brief time we have between birth and the box. Better to try to fill that time with what moments of delight we can grasp before we cease to be and all memory of us fades.
When I shared the above soliloquy of Hamlet on Facebook yesterday, in my excitement at the upcoming show, the people who commented on my status all referenced the film Withnail and I (the philistines! 😉 )and so, as I can’t find a video of Maxine Peake’s performance, here is Richard E. Grant in the final moments of the film.