“The play’s the thing”, Sarah Ross

Ngaio Marsh’s Hamlet: The 1943 Production Script
Polly Hoskins (ed)
Canterbury University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781988503134

In August 1943, as New Zealand troops in Europe began the Italian campaign, the Canterbury University College Drama Society (CUCDS) performed Hamlet to sell-out audiences at the Canterbury College Little Theatre. Hamlet had not been seen in New Zealand “for a generation”, and it was a roaring success: students were straddling the beams in the rafters, and CUCDS was reproached by the City Council for overfilling the space. The acclaimed season was produced and directed by Ngaio Marsh, the celebrated crime novelist who went on to direct several Shakespearean plays. Marsh embraced the war-time context for the production, featuring modern, military dress. Owing to its success, Hamlet returned for a second season at the Little Theatre, November–December 1943, after university exams were over for the year; and after CUCDS mounted a season of Othello in 1944, both productions toured nationally.

These details and more are retold in Ngaio Marsh’s Hamlet: The 1943 Production Script, a delightful book edited with an introduction by Polly Hoskins, a current MA student in English at Canterbury University. The book is the result of Hoskins’s engagement with Ngaio Marsh’s own producer’s script of the play – a rare resource, given the typical ephemerality of the theatrical record, where often all that is left is a few reviews and the odd copy of a programme. Marsh’s producer’s script, in contrast, is a grand folio volume replete with her own notes, blocking diagrams and sketches, now deposited (to Hoskins’s good fortune, and our own) in the Alexander Turnbull Library. To this rich resource, Hoskins adds evidence and anecdotes from publicity photos and posters, reviews, Marsh’s own writings on theatrical production and, quite entrancingly, the score of the incidental music written for the production by Douglas Lilburn. This brief but atmospheric composition, held in a separate manuscript in the Alexander Turnbull Library, has been edited in the volume by Hoskins’s father, distinguished musicologist Robert Hoskins, in a very happy familial confluence of literary and musical expertise.

This book emerges out of exemplary Honours-level work by Polly Hoskins – confirmation of excellent literary and cultural studies taking place at the grass roots in New Zealand universities. But what is the value of its publication for the wider readers of Aotearoa New Zealand? One central interest is the text of the play itself, shortened by Marsh and arranged into 18 sequential scenes. Marsh’s redaction is just one engagement with the playtext in a 400-year history of actors, directors, and producers reducing, rewriting, and reshaping the play. Hamlet is notoriously unstable, the so-called “bad” and “good” quarto editions and the First Folio of 1623 presenting quite different versions of the text.

Marsh’s adaptations are for the most part predictable, producing a clear narrative and sharp characterisation, although her treatment of Hamlet’s final soliloquy – “How all occasions do inform against me” – is noteworthy. Occurring in Act 4 of the first (“bad”) quarto of the play, but absent from the second (“good”) quarto and the First Folio versions, this soliloquy depicts Hamlet reacting to the threatening advance over Denmark of troops under the command of Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. Hoskins indicates that Marsh omitted this scene from the August 1943 production of the play, but reinserted it for the second, revival season in November–December and included it thereafter. Hoskins is right that its absence would “weaken the atmosphere of imminent threat” that is vital to the play’s war-time setting. In addition, though, its inclusion (as in any production) would have had an important effect on the character trajectory of Hamlet, for this is his most active, most warlike set of words, after his interminable delays and prevarications; here (at last!) he declares, “Oh from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”. Also striking is Marsh’s presentation of the playtext in prose instead of blank verse. This may seem barbarous to Shakespearean purists but, as Hoskins explains, it was central to Marsh’s strategy for preventing actors from end-stopping lines and losing “the sense of the word”, syntax, and dialogue.

Hamlet himself declares “the play’s the thing”, but it is the vivid context captured by Hoskins in her edition that is the most compelling aspect of this book: Marsh’s exquisite sketches in her producer’s script, a laudatory review written by Allen Curnow and sent to Denis Glover, then serving in the Royal Navy, and a rather more acerbic one by John Pocock (that is, the eminent historian J G A Pocock) in the student magazine Canta.

Curnow mused on the impact of the production’s use of modern dress: “Francisco at his post, in tin hat and army greatcoat, armed with service rifle, bayonet fixed. As on some New Zealand coast defence post, so at Elsinore”. He admired the staging of the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes as a “correctly played bout”, and he celebrated Lilburn’s incidental music. For Pocock, the production was altogether too melodramatic, full of archaic mannerisms of the kind that Hamlet himself parodies in the players of Act 3, and out of keeping with Pocock’s vision of his own 20th century, a “century [that] is fundamentally anti-melodramatic” and that (in his view) demanded less Victorianism and more modern stringency.

Pocock’s implicit, underlying question – how can Shakespeare speak to the cultural moment in which it is performed? – has lost none of its relevance in the 21st century, where Shakespeare continues to enjoy cultural centrality. Miles Gregory’s Pop-Up Globe, the summer Shakespeare productions that take place around the country every year, and the annual Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, all point to the ongoing desire to produce Shakespeare with relevance to our place and our current moment. The heated controversy around the Pop-Up Globe’s decision (then recanted) to mount an all-male production of The Taming Of The Shrew as a comment on the #metoo movement is one illustration of the purchase these performances have on the public imagination.

These are just some of the reasons that one woman’s redaction of Shakespeare’s most famous play, the record of her performance vision, and that of the performance’s reception in Christchurch in 1943 is worthy of publication in Hoskins’s book. It does not seem entirely coincidental that I read it in the week when newspapers across the world featured Jason Scott-Warren’s and Claire Bourne’s astonishing scholarship identifying the handwritten annotations in a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio as likely to be that of John Milton.

How Milton read his Shakespeare, how Marsh reimagined Hamlet: these are two small parts of a larger question about the reception of Shakespeare that enthrals us because it exemplifies how particular moments imagine themselves through their canonical cultural past.

Hoskins’s book is a slim, aesthetically pleasing volume with a full selection of high-quality illustrations: Canterbury University Press deserves a shout-out for its production values. The text is cleanly edited with minimal notes, and the introductory material is elegantly written, with an admirable clarity, and an astute sense of what is noteworthy. Hoskins is a lively storyteller, and we can only hope that “her first book”, as the dustjacket describes it, will be one of many.

Sarah Ross is Associate Professor in English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Plays, Review
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