In the opening moments of David Farr’s production of Hamlet, currently playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Jonathan Slinger’s Dane takes up position centre stage, ostensibly in the middle of a fencing hall. In his hands he holds a small wooden sword, and as he hears a noise offstage, the first line of the play – ordinarily Barnado’s – is spoken by him: “Who’s there?”
“It’s an old space that relates very strongly to my father,” Slinger tells me as we sit down for a chat before the show, juggling personal pronouns so that he often speaks for his character, “so it’s a very emotional space for me”. The whole of this production rests on the fact that we understand very early on the grief Hamlet feels for his father, and for Slinger it was important to get this right: “You have one scene to tell us what the story of that is. But because the ghost is very often portrayed as a very terrifying spectacle from another world that appears to be quite threatening and quite angry, that gets in the way of what I think we need to see, which is quite an intimate portrait of the relationship that was.”
One of the most powerful moments of the production comes when Hamlet reaches out and touches the ghost’s hand when he meets him on the battlements. A piercing, elongated scream of “Oh God” echoes through the auditorium. The decision to do this was a no-brainer: “We need to empathise with the beauty and the intimacy and the love and the vulnerability of what used to be there. And we need to completely empathise with what’s Hamlet’s lost […] Without that, I don’t really understand why Hamlet is doing what he’s doing or feels the way he feels.”
Slinger had been “talking to Michael Boyd about doing Hamlet for quite a few years”, but after the old artistic director announced he was resigning, the chance came up to tackle the play with Farr. The two initially worked together during the RSC’s 50th anniversary season on Pinter’s The Homecoming, and have subsequently created memorable performances of Malvolio and Prospero, so the progression to Hamlet felt right. “There’s something – probably to do with the fact that David and I are a very similar age – that means we feel very much like equals. It feels like a very equal relationship. I think when I work with David it’s the most purely collaborative experience, because the avuncular, almost paternal feeling that there normally is with a director isn’t there with David.”
The show has just returned from a short hiatus (during which time Maria Aberg’s stonking production of As You Like It got up and running) which, according to Slinger, was much needed: “I have never been more tired than when I was when we were opening this show. There were nights when I’d go home and I’d be so exhausted that I would be very concerned for my health and wellbeing the next day”. You wouldn’t guess it, however, from Slinger’s sprightly conversation, which flits from one anecdote to the next with extraordinary energy. Two years ago, he admitted that Macbeth was the hardest role he’d played, and even though this role is “emotionally and physically challenging”, the Scottish king still remains the most difficult role he’s come across because, he says, “it took longer to connect with him as a person.” Though exhausting, he can “engage with Hamlet as a person more easily. There’s an outsider quality to Hamlet which I personally connect with.”
One of the joys for any actor playing Hamlet is his relationship with an audience which, especially in a space such as the thrust set-up at the RST, “is key”. When the Globe first opened, Slinger tells me, a production of The Winter’s Tale (in which he played Florizel) demonstrated to him the power of Shakespeare’s “call and response” in his speeches. When Mark Lewis Jones’ Leontes asked “Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel / And call me father?”, a loud cry of “Yes!” came from the audience, with a scream of “No” following “Better burn it now / Than curse it then”, allowing for the concluding line of “But be it; let it live” to come entirely from the audience’s will. At this moment, Slinger says, he remembers thinking “Fucking hell. He wrote it – he absolutely 100% wrote it, without question of a doubt wrote it – with that in mind.” From this moment on, he understood that many speeches and soliloquies are “direct conversations with the audience”, which was crucial to the rehearsal process for Hamlet.
In rehearsals, the plan was originally to have direct interaction with the audience, with Slinger coming to sit in the audience to speak “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I?” Away from an audience, “it worked brilliantly,” but as soon as it was tried in front of members of the public, “it didn’t work at all.” Like the best actors, Slinger balances instinct and intellect, though it’s easy to hear the disappointment in his voice when he tells me this instinctive idea of his didn’t work: “Maybe it’s partly to do with the fact that if you go and sit in the audience you’re not quite as visible as in a rehearsal room, where you’re just literally walking to the sides. I don’t know. It was very odd. I was really disappointed to begin with. It was such a brilliant idea and it worked so fantastically in the rehearsal room, we thought ‘This is going to be amazing’. And it just fell flat.”
I was going to ask Slinger whether or not he’d started preparing for All’s Well That Ends Well, in which he’s set to play Parolles, but a script on the table answers this question for me. Rehearsals started this week, and he’s looking forward to playing a character which goes completely against his Hamlet, seeing as “Paroles is traditionally more of a comic creation. It’ll be nice to have the contrast: the dark, melancholy depression of Hamlet and something a bit lighter.”
My final question is the standard “What next?”, which has the potential to lead to general answers and protests describing the unknown, but again this is clearly something Slinger has been thinking about for a while: “because you’re always playing these big characters on big stages, it could be argued that all I’m doing is exercising certain big muscles.” It’s definitely true that Slinger has found something he’s good at within the confines of the RSC, so it’s no surprise that he thinks he needs “to go on and do something completely different now. Either do more modern stuff in a small studio space somewhere or go off and do some very forensic small stuff on screen.” A pause, and then an answer which suggests that may be easier said than done: “That’s probably what I should do”.
But for all Slinger’s suggestions that he feels a need to move away from Shakespeare, it can’t be denied that this is where his heart lies. When I suggest the possibility of Shakespeare on film, his eyes light up and says he would relish the opportunity to not think so technically when performing seeing as there’s “a mic that’s picking up every whisper so you can really afford to take things down.” Ultimately, however, there’s no doubt he’ll be back on this stage in the future, maybe even playing his ideal pairing of Iago and Benedick in one season: “That would be very interesting.” And with such a perpetually intriguing and nuanced back catalogue, it’s hard not to agree.
Photo: Keith Pattison.