Pantomime and War: Helpmann’s Hamlet

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Helpmann’s Hamlet

Nevertheless, in the darkest days of the war, theater people in London did manage to produce a large-scale pantomime: Robert Helpmann’s extraordinary version of Hamlet (1942). Born in Mount Gambier, Australia, Helpmann (1909-1986) began acting and dancing as a child, sometimes performing with his younger sister Sheila (1916-1994), who had a long career as an actress in Australia. In Adelaide, he studied social dancing with Nora Stewart, who in 1923 opened a dance club in the city. When the famous Russian dancer Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) toured Australia in 1926, Helpmann’s father was able to arrange for her to meet with his son. She invited him to tour with her throughout Australia and New Zealand, and he took ballet lessons with her dance partner, Laurent Novikoff (1888-1956). Pavlova’s performances so impressed him that he decided at the rather late age of seventeen to become a ballet dancer. She advised him to study the art in Europe, but his father’s death in 1927 compelled him to stay close to his mother. For several years, he acted and danced in musical comedies in different Australian cities. He did not reach Europe until 1933, with the goal of becoming a ballet dancer. But the classes he took in Paris were so stressful that he began to doubt that he had any talent for ballet. He went to London to obtain work as an actor. Another actor gave him an introduction to the Irish-English dancer Ninette de Valois (1898-2001). Formerly a member of the Ballet Russes, de Valois had formed (1931) the Vic-Wells ballet company as a component of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Company, managed by Lilian Baylis (1874-1937), who wanted the theater to perform separate drama, opera, and ballet programs. De Valois needed male dancers for her company, and she immediately recognized Helpmann’s potential. He performed in many ballets, and by 1935 he was starring in most of the works produced by the company (Walker 2009: 9-23). But he did not begin choreographing for the company until 1942, when he produced three major works, ComusHamlet, and The BirdsComus, an adaptation of John Milton’s 1634 masque libretto, featured Helpmann as Comus, the sinister forest demon who attempts to seduce the lost Lady into a life of debauchery and depravity, and in the piece Helpmann spoke lines from the poem as he danced. What made Helpmann unique as a dancer and then as a choreographer was that he regarded dance as a form of drama that required acting skill as much as movement technique: “the dancing interest is subservient to that of the story” (Brahms 1943: 28). Because he never had much training in ballet technique, he did not regard stories as opportunities to introduce dances that displayed technique; rather, he saw dance as a means of characterizing bodies in relation to other characterized bodies. But in Hamlet, he dispensed with danced movement almost entirely and built the narrative out of pantomime. 

            Helpmann’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was about twenty minutes long, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture-Fantasia (1889), which invoked moods inspired by the drama rather than depicted musically specific scenes from it. As a counterpoint to the music, Helpmann’s pantomime invoked specific scenes from the drama, a kind of monumental dumb show of key moments in the play. The piece begins with the dying Hamlet being carried off stage by four monks, and what follows, after a blackout, are a succession of “swift cinematic images, economical in movement but rich in significance; each one translates visually some key passage in Shakespeare’s text” (Walker 2009: 54). Hamlet encounters the Gravedigger with Yorick’s skull, and this image precipitates the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, who reveals that his father has been murdered. Court ladies enter and perform a dance. Polonius and Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude, and then Ophelia appear: “They waver and fade and replace one another and bloom afresh before him. He makes to hold one and finds he is clutching the other” (Brahms 1943: 29). “In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gertrude, the Queen, is an amiable but silly woman. It is the King who is the villain [… but Helpmann] and the personal beauty of Celia Franca [1921-2007] who dances the Queen, put a different emphasis on the play’s characterisations: the Queen flowers triumphantly upon her second marriage like a lovely evil orchid, while the King dwindles to a puppet’s stature with a puppet’s potentialities” (Brahms 1943: 40).  As Laertes bids farewell to Ophelia, they perform a “kittenish pas de deux,” which Polonius interrupts to press her toward Hamlet. Ophelia and Hamlet perform their own “tender and lyrical” duet until Hamlet realizes that Polonius and the King are spying on them. The Court returns, the Page assembles everyone for a performance of the play-within-a-play: the Ghost plays the murdered King, Ophelia the Queen, and Hamlet Claudius. Ophelia/Gertrude hands the poisoned chalice to Claudius/Hamlet to pour into the King’s ear. As Hamlet/Claudius points accusingly at the real Claudius, he embraces Ophelia/Gertrude while the Court rushes away in horror. Claudius kneels, Hamlet draws his dagger to kill him but cannot slay a man in prayer. Polonius intrudes upon the scene and Hamlet stabs him. Gertrude and the Ghost return; Hamlet collapses unconscious on a stairway. Laertes and Claudius enter “struggling,” but Ophelia, “stark mad in white satin,” interrupts them: she dances, handing flowers to Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude, before embracing Laertes “passionately.” She departs, and Laertes rushes after her. Hamlet awakes: a funeral procession approaches, led by a woman. “As she reached him, she opened her veil to reveal herself as Ophelia and not the Queen.” But the blue veil represents the river in which Ophelia has drowned. Pulling aside the shroud over the bier, Hamlet sees his mother’s body. He sinks to his knees, while Claudius restrains Laertes from killing Hamlet, and both retreat from the scene. The Court returns, carrying goblets. Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude greet Hamlet. As Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine, Laertes and Hamlet receive the foils from the Page. Laertes stabs Hamlet in the back, but Hamlet spins and stabs Laertes, who accuses Claudius of poisoning the sword tips. Hamlet turns his sword upon Claudius, but “seeing that Gertrude has been poisoned by the wine, he forces Claudius to drink its dregs.” The drunken Gravedigger appears and offers Hamlet a drink from the skull he uses as a cup. But Hamlet dies, and the four monks lift his body and carry him away, so that the piece ends as it began (Walker 2009: 54-55; Brahms 1943: 29-30). 

            It is astonishing that Helpmann could weave together so lucidly so many tragic actions in under twenty minutes, but that is because of his use of economical pantomimic actions rather than dances (or words, for that matter) to construct the narrative. The dances never last more than a minute. Helpmann used complex arrangements of arm movements, especially for the Court scenes, to create what Brahms (7) calls “a superb sense of line,” a kind of kinetic architectural relationship between bodies. The production exuded a heavy aura of expressionism. As always, Helpmann paid close attention to theatrical effects. The makeup was intensely white, luminous, with dark eyes and lips, like faces in films from the early 1920s. The costumes, beautifully detailed, even for the Court women in claret-colored gowns, evoked a late fifteenth century grandeur; Hamlet wore a black body suit with a white belt and an ornamental chain and cross over his chest; Ophelia wore a luxuriously luminous gown, “a lovely shade of lime-green,” while Gertrude was ominous in a dark, bluish-green gown and a crown with exaggerated spikes. The Ghost also wore a disturbingly spiked crown, but his mask and costume appeared “alien” within the historicized costume suite, like a figure from Chinese opera. The sleeves for all the characters were asymmetrical, producing a sense of imbalance in them. The reclusive artist Leslie Hurry (1909-1978) designed the costumes and the set. Helpmann invited Hurry to design the Hamlet production after he had seen an exhibition of the artist’s work, but Hurry was “doubtful as to his ability to design for the theatre.” When Helpmann outlined his concept for the production, Hurry consented to trying his hand at designing for the theater. In Britain, Hurry had the reputation of being an “ultra surrealist,” apparently because he studied briefly in Paris in 1938. But his work strongly favors the subjective distortions of expressionism over the incongruous juxtapositions of surrealism. His décor for Hamlet, “certainly the most original setting for ballet seen in recent years,” was a masterpiece of expressionist “representation of the subconscious.” Combining a large painted backdrop and architectonic entrances with steps on either side of the stage, the set depicted a gloomy and fantastically baroque interior of a palace in red, orange, crimson, ochre, and green. The pillars of one entrance ascended to form a huge hand holding a dagger and wine cup; the pillars of the other entrance rose to form a large, spiked crown. A huge, helmeted, nearly nude figure brandishing a sword leapt forward from the backdrop, which showed arched doorways and a staircase receding into abysmal depths. Huge, obelisk-like daggers mounted on ornate pedastals framed the limits of the proscenium. “Above the great staircase [was] a vortex ring of flame from which leapt tongues and spurts of fire.” “Mysterious, ominous, and filled with a sense of open and lurking menace, few spectators can look upon it for the first time without an involuntary catch of the breath” (Beaumont 1947: 7-9). [Figure 94]. Although Helpmann specified that he wanted an “overpowering” set that “dominated” the dancers and reduced them to “pygmy stature,” such an extravagantly linear design actually allowed the performers to move, gesture, and act with an extravagant, undulant rapidity without appearing excessively exaggerated. Powerful scenic effects did not “distract” from the pantomimic action; they enhanced it. Helpmann’s production showed images passing through Hamlet’s mind as he moved toward death. This mind approaches its end without any verbal poetry, for the passage to death is a concatenation of memories performed in pantomime within a distorted frame. 

            Hamlet opened at the Theatre Royal York on December 26, 1942, with Helpmann playing Hamlet and Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) as Ophelia; Alexis Rassine (1919-1992) was the Ghost. The cast included several other performers who later became distinguished as actors or dancers: Moira Shearer (1926-2006), Moyra Fraser (1923-2009), Margaret Dale (1922-2010), Beryl Grey (b. 1927), Pauline Clayden (b. 1922), Lorna Mossford (1924-1972), David Paltenghi (1919-1961), and Julia Farron (b. 1922). What an amazing ensemble of youthful artistic adventurers facing the terrible proximity of death in the middle of a terrible war! Constant Lambert (1905-1951) and Julian Clifford (1903-?) alternately conducted the orchestra.

Figure 94: Scenes from Robert Helpmann’s production of Hamlet, London, 1942, with Margo Fonteyn as Ophelia, bottom left, and Celia Franca as Gertrude, bottom right, right. Photos by Russell Sedgwick, from Brahms (1943). 

On the program, the piece followed Helpmann’s one-act ballet The Birds, set to music by Respighi, and preceded scenes from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, in which Helpmann also danced. Critical response was largely quite enthusiastic about the production, with The Dancing Times, an arch defender of classical ballet, unique in complaining about the lack of dancing (“one can scarcely call it a ‘ballet’”) and the morbidity of the piece. The dance critic and novelist Caryl Brahms (1901-1982) published a generous sampling of press comments (1943: 31-37) that describe well the great excitement provoked by the production, and she asserts that audiences were “overwhelmingly enthusiastic.” Her own monograph on Helpmann, published months after the performance and containing many beautiful photographs of the production by Russell Sedgwick, is itself evidence of the tremendous power of the production to stir the viewer. She believed that in fifty years, Hamlet would remain one of the works still performed (10). Helpmann revived the piece for the now Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1947-1948, with himself and Fonteyn playing their original roles with an otherwise new cast. In 1964, the Royal Ballet, which was the name of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet after 1956, revived Hamlet again, with Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) as Hamlet, Monica Mason (b. 1941) as the Queen, and Lynn Seymour (b. 1939) as Ophelia. The production used Leslie Hurry’s set and costumes. Here, as in Helpmann’s original production, the ballerina playing the Queen was younger than the woman playing Ophelia and younger than the man playing her son. However, it is not clear how much of Helpmann’s pantomimic approach remained in this production, for Nureyev was an ardent believer in classical ballet technique and carefully constructed his roles to display his virtuosity to the fullest, although in his 1966 production of Sleeping Beauty, he did employ some pantomimic scenes that did not include himself. Yet it is difficult to see how all the scenes in the piece could appear within the twenty-minute time frame without the efficiencies of pantomimic action: so it’s remarkable that Nureyev even chose to perform the piece. Reviews of the production—“a remarkable ballet by any standards”—matched in excitement the response to the 1942 production (Walker 2009: 127). The Royal Ballet revived Hamlet yet again in 1981, with Anthony Dowell (b. 1943) as Hamlet, Monica Mason again as the Queen, and Antoinette Sibley (b. 1939) as Ophelia. This production, again using Hurry’s set and costumes, had many more performances than any previous production. Anna Kisselgoff (b. 1938) reviewed the production for The New York Times (June 22, 1981) and called it “one of the season’s most interesting works.”

It is 1940’s modern and 1940’s in its Freudian approach. The action is so fast-paced and seemingly straightforward that one has to look carefully for the interpretation of Shakespeare’s play that is actually there. It is one in tune with, possibly in advance of, Ernest Jones’s famous psychological view of a Hamlet with an Oedipus complex.

In the hallucination scene that makes up this entire ballet, the Helpmann Hamlet is in love with his mother. He cannot tell the difference between her and Ophelia. The two women exchange places in a doorway, and at Ophelia’s funeral the body on the bier is the Queen’s. Ophelia herself has an incestuous hankering for Laertes – with Miss Sibley’s Ophelia giving [… him] a passionate unsisterly kiss on the lips.

The production used different dancers to perform the roles of Hamlet, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Polonius, causing Kisselgoff to remark that, “the beauty of this acted dance-drama is that it allows for diversity of interpretation,” with each cast different in excellent ways (“Monica Mason’s Queen had wonderful unconcealed passion toward her son in the evening, while Sandra Conley in the afternoon was more of a distant ideal”). In a review of a biography of Helpmann a couple of months earlier, Kisselgoff (NYT April 12, 1981) observed that Hamlet “is exactly the kind of ballet one would have thought past revival,” and “it would be foolish to presume that the present concentration on pure-dance values is not going to make room for dance-drama again.” Yet Hamlet has not had any production since 1981, and the focus on “pure-dance values” since then has become, if anything, even more intense and inhospitable to Helpmann’s actorly-dramatic aesthetic. In 2009, David Bintley (b. 1957), formerly a choreographer for the Royal Ballet and currently a choreographer for the Birmingham Ballet, asked the Royal Ballet the status of Hamlet in the repertoire in connection with the centenary of Helpmann’s birth. But the Royal Ballet told him that it had “got rid of it, which is not really forward-thinking at all. If you want to eradicate ballets then there are plenty that can be got rid of but a heritage ballet like that with those great designs? I would certainly have kept that” (Bintley 2015). 

            Hamlet moved Helpmann much deeper into acting. In 1944, he played Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play at the Old Vic in a production directed by Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971) and Michael Benthall (1919-1974), Helpmann’s lifelong partner. He alternated with Paul Scofield (1922-2008) in the role, creating a contrast between a “cerebral, aloof” Hamlet (Helpmann) and a “passionate, romantic” Hamlet (Scofield) (Rosenberg 1992: 138-139). The production was so successful that Helpmann and Benthall revived it in 1948, and Helpmann even performed sections of the play on the radio. Helpmann continued to choreograph and dance with the Sadler’s Wells Company, including the extraordinary and controversial Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), a dark, violent expressionist ballet set in the slums of Glasgow. He choreographed the dances for the fascinating ballet film The Red Shoes (1948) and started acting in films. But he never returned to the sort of pantomimic drama he created with Hamlet. The reasons were probably political. Another major choreographer for Sadler’s Wells, Frederick Ashton (1904-1988), became deeply resentful of Helpmann’s success. Despite his own fame, Ashton was intensely insecure. His popularity with audiences and critics derived in large part from the “lightness” and glittering charm of his ballets. He favored a pure dance approach to ballet, with many of his pieces avoiding narrative altogether to emphasize the elegance and abstract beauty of movements in themselves. He feared that Helpmann’s much “darker,” expressionistic approach to ballet, with its heavy reliance on pantomimic acting at the expense of classical virtuosity, would cast a deep, dominant shadow over the company, although Helpmann, not one to worry much about his power over others, continued to perform in Ashton’s ballets, most notably when he and Ashton played the grotesque stepsisters in Ashton’s production of Cinderella (1948). Ashton conspired with members of the company to insure that “his importance to Sadler’s Wells Ballet would never be jeopardized” (Walker 2009: 56). His success in reaching this goal depended on tightening his relationship with the director of the company, Ninette de Valois, who was quite a crafty administrator as well as an important choreographer. De Valois realized that Helpmann, as an actor, dancer, and choreographer, would always find opportunities outside of the company, whereas Ashton would never find a life outside of the company. Ashton’s aesthetic prevailed, and in 1963, he replaced the retiring de Valois as director of the Royal Ballet until 1970, when he, too, retired. By 1960, Helpmann’s days as a dancer in the company had begun to wane, but just before she retired, de Valois commissioned him to do a short ballet, Elektra (1963), with an exceptionally violent musical score by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006). The wildly acrobatic expressionism of the piece, “associated with ‘adagio dancers’ in nightclubs and cabarets,” provoked turbulent controversy and a severely divided critical response, while audiences apparently found the “volcanic passions” of the piece quite thrilling (Walker 2009: 122-123). Soon after, Helpmann moved back to Australia to develop a series of innovative, sometimes very controversial projects for the Australian Ballet in Sydney, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Hamlet was a great pantomime inspired by the war and the threat of extinction. Postwar revivals of the piece stirred audiences unforgettably. But the circumstances that created the work were inimitable: a company struggling to survive, a choreographer-director whose education in classical ballet technique was weak and whose love of acting was as strong as his love of dancing, a profound, “serious” uncertainty about the future, the sense that if “what comes next” (narrative structure) depends on what one remembers, then the future is death, and people just starting to choreograph, to dance, to design. This tragic pantomime about the sinister majesty of death was the work of an utterly unique configuration of young people who did not have a clear idea yet of what “English” ballet should be. By the 1980s, such a combination of circumstances was impossible anywhere within ballet. The standard of proficiency for the performance of classical ballet technique had become so high that ballet has become an art almost entirely fixated on the virtuoso display of dance skills. After Helpmann, the postwar development of pantomime would not find innovative nourishment from the ballet. 

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