Last weekend Joshua and I attended a performance of Charlotte Jones’s 2001 play, “Humble Boy”, at Boston’s Publick Theatre.
“Humble Boy” was commissioned by Britain’s National Theatre as a vehicle for Simon Russell Beale, who had played the title role in “Hamlet” at The National Theatre the previous year to great acclaim. “Humble Boy” was one in a series of plays The National Theatre commissioned from various playwrights to develop themes from “Hamlet” after the extraordinary success of its "Hamlet" staging for Beale.
In “Humble Boy”, playwright Jones creates a Hamlet figure that is indecisive and not particularly practical and not-at-all interesting: a middle-aged lecturer in astrophysics at Cambridge who loves to talk incessantly about the vagaries of science because he is awkward and incommunicative when discussing other topics.
Returning to his hometown in The Cotswolds to attend the funeral of his father, the Hamlet figure learns to his dismay that the Gertrude figure, his mother, has taken up with the Claudius figure, an odious neighbor—and that his mother had taken up with this odious neighbor long before the death of his father. Things are complicated further by the fact that the Hamlet figure, many years earlier, had enjoyed a romantic relationship with the odious neighbor’s daughter, the Ophelia figure in the play.
The play is intriguing and irritating in equal measure. Jones is not a significant playwright. She does not know how to mix comedy and pathos, she does not know how to propel a story forward, and she has to turn to coincidence and colorful subsidiary characters far too often simply to keep the play afloat. “Humble Boy” is a watered-down version of a Michael Frayn play taken from Frayn’s bottom drawer—and Frayn, the most impersonal of playwrights, is hardly a satisfactory model for a young playwright in the first place.
The most developed—and only interesting—character in “Humble Boy” is the mother, who is one part irresistible and one part monstrous. Totally irresponsible and completely fixated on her own wants and needs, the mother grandly manipulates all who come in contact with her, whether they be friends, neighbors, townspeople—or her son. She is a delicious but repellent figure.
“Humble Boy” was a major hit in London, transferring from The National Theatre to The West End after the original repertory run ended. One of the reasons for the commercial success of the original production was the appearance of Diana Rigg in the role of the mother. I never saw the original London production, but I am told by my sister-in-law that Rigg was absolutely riveting, turning her part into a star vehicle—but seriously unbalancing the play in the process.
There was no danger of imbalance in the Boston production, because all the actors were equally provincial (and equally unattractive, too). Josh and I spent the entire performance asking ourselves why the individual actors onstage had been cast in their roles. None brought much skill to his or her part.
The Boston production was feebly directed. The production was never able to find a tone, or succeed in melding the comedic bits with the serious bits. It was, for all practical purposes, an amateur production, and not a very good amateur production at that.
Based upon my viewing of the Boston presentation, the role of the Hamlet figure appears to be seriously under-written, as is the part of the Claudius figure. As a result, the most interesting element of the play remains the haughty connivances of the Gertrude figure, amusing to watch for a short while but ultimately an unsatisfactory basis for a complex and lasting play.
A better production than the Boston Publick Theatre production might cause me to change my mind about the merits of the play.