I found Sea of Troubles a tremendously complex piece – and would love to see it again. MacMillan’s grasp on the source text seems to me formidable. Indeed I think that at present my responses to it are only half formed, because it was so definitely not another production of – or even another version of Hamlet – but something very much of itself, an organic being, and generating its own difficulties for the lucky viewer required to grapple with the explorations in which it was engaged.

I was struck even before the piece began by the simplicity of the staging – even in a studio production. It was so effective having just the arras (and through that signalling the significance of what remains hidden and the immanence of an impending Death) because this arras also focused us on the silvery, ghostlike presence of dreams and nightmares: its form insubstantial and suggesting that nothing is solid – but at the same time asserting that all perceptions of the real are rarely right and often lead us astray.

And then, with an eerie predictability, the Ghost appeared to Hamlet – moving us into the story through the traditional opening of the play – but, as dance and mime, whispering its poisonous news into Hamlet’s ear alone, as something that his audience could not share and so could not confirm – as something therefore that possibly existed only in Hamlet’s diseased brain.

When that ghost lay down, we were yanked into a time shift – into unreliable sequencing. We were now in the world of the Player King and Queen with a dumb show that traditionally set out the story’s outline before the play begins – as was sometimes done then (hence Hamlet’s horror as he realised how that dumb show might unravel his clever mousetrap plot in Act III).

In other words we were being given “the argument” – and I supposed that this was MacMillan’s intention in choosing the disturbing sounds of the Webern violin, forcing an awareness of the febrile direction his conception was going to take: the presentation of a highly layered and nuanced range of possibilities, or readings of the events.

And as in the play, the story plays out very differently with each different narrator. The dumb show, the Murder of Gonzago and the narrative given to us (and to Hamlet) by the Ghost do not tell the same story but are subtly different. Each narrative offers us an unnervingly varied interpretation of the same events – and of possible motivations for, and reactions to, the actions we were about to witness. And these alternative possibilities would make immediate and decisive action unintelligent (and hence impossible), would haunt Hamlet to the brink of madness and precipitate death on all who became involved.

MacMillan’s intent now seemed to explore images of those events, and the insecure grip on any true reality that each proposed. This meant that we too were involved in insecurities, would be required to make a judgement and would become complicit not only as judges but as the witnesses to events. Our own grip on a sound judgement was questioned by the complexities and difficulties inherent in what we watched. We were made to enter with him into the whole range of Hamlet’s concerns – concerns about the levels to which not only Claudius but Hamlet’s own mother was complicit in the murder – might even be using Claudius as her puppet (like Lady Macbeth) in order to achieve a younger and more manipulable husband than his brother (so beautifully explored in her lifting Claudius’ feet and setting him robot-like on his way). Yes we too, could we fully trust that Ghost? For this was dance. There were no corroborative words. How far could we even trust our own eyes – our memories strained by patterned repetition?

The fact that we then saw the scene acted out by different dancers further undermined our hold on the apparent reality of the action – moved us away from the world of acting and into a nightmare world of mad possibilities – each of which Hamlet was obliged to live through imaginatively in order to assess their likely probability – their possible accuracy or truth – before he could (or should) pick up the bloody cloak of the avenger – that is to say, before he might feel, not just the unthinking reaction of a son cheated by events of his inheritance, but the absolute conviction that Claudius was indeed guilty of his own brother’s murder and deserved to die. And if Hamlet’s own mother were involved in planning or in executing the death stroke – what then should his attitude be towards her and should she now, or should she not, share in this fate? And might it be the right end for Hamlet himself even, irresponsibly absent when his Father died, and unmindful of his duties both as son and heir?

The hip wobble that MacMillan employed in his choreography – that absolute loss of core stability – was a marvellous vehicle through which to explore such insecurities –more apt even than the close-fluttering hands – for if the hips are insecure you cannot walk straight – cannot think or act aright – and therefore cannot, in good conscience, act at all.

Core insecurity was of course shown in its most extreme form in Ophelia’s total inability to stand [to act] at all without the propping up given to her, one on either side, by Claudius and Polonius – her weakness turning her into their puppet – and adding for Hamlet the problem of her reliability: as witness, as a lover and worst of all, were she to become Hamlet’s own wife, as a potential queen. And this allowed MacMillan to play games with the insane images in Hamlet’s mind – and to dance out on the stage so many Queens and Kings. Would he and a treacherous Ophelia potentially replicate the King and Queen of the dumb show – or the betrayal of the Player King by his Queen? Was his father, now a Ghost, betrayed by his apparently fond Queen? What of the new Queen and her current King Claudius? Wherever Hamlet looks, MacMillan makes another King and Queen dance – in apparent pomp as they process around, but in their cardboard crowns (and in their very multiplicity) a question mark to any real integrity of purpose.

The simple device of the cardboard crown is able to present not only the past in multiple guises, but a past with multiple potential outcomes: Hamlet and his Queen Mother, Hamlet and the tainted Ophelia – and, after them, all the future Kings and Queens of Denmark [again Macbeth-like in its presenting apparitions of future heirs]. With each Queen and each re-imagined interpretation, a different emotion would prevail – could be explored: as experienced by Hamlet, as explored in dance and as affecting us who witnessed it.   An anger, born of frustration, was just one of these emotions. It forced Hamlet to watch in a seething silence that which he could not control – burning to thrust himself between Claudius and Gertrude but initially unable to use any gesture that might suggest a fatal force be applied to either, for at that point in the action, the absolute guilt of neither is clear to his judgement and, while the possibilities dance around in his head, his “conscience” makes him appear indecisive and vacillating.

It is only when we, as audience, have seen enough scenarios played out, have experienced for ourselves the truth or falsity of each, that we will feel able to support his taking action – can applaud so extreme a course – and such a level of conviction in the audience is very hard to achieve. The loss of momentum in any Act IV (that lull before the storm) – and the problems it repeatedly gave Shakespeare – was inevitably also a problem for MacMillan, and at that uncertain point before the “last Act” dance [with all the dancers holding hands and facing forwards], it felt hard to hold the dynamic focus of this piece together.

As soon as the last, tragic, slightly military dance started into motion however, [recalling the dance performed by its actors after any Elizabethan play], we became convinced. A tension that had held us tight throughout almost the whole of this piece’s extraordinary variety was finally wound up. The men were now set on a course they could no longer avoid. Automata beyond persuasion, clenched, unyielding.   Their womenfolk, no longer able to support or deny them their fell action (or indeed any definitive action at all), were carried along by them – their core beliefs in tatters – their hips yawing hopelessly – their minds given up to madness.

MacMillan’s ability to repeat this choric dance more than once established its absolute inevitability.   The ending – still coming as a dramatic shock – could then be accepted as one that was, indeed, utterly right.

Barbara Berrington

7th October 2016