Hamlet, ADC Theatre, 13th January 2009.
DISCLAIMER: As you can see from this reviews page, and last play I saw was the RSC’s Hamlet. This may in a small way have set me up for disappointment with this play. I have tried to temper my judgment accordingly.
I’m a pretty open person (disagreements welcome – see what I did there?), and I have never yet walked out of a play or failed to return at the interval. There was one performance (‘Pastoral’ at the Warwick Arts Centre, since you ask) where I would have gladly legged it had I not been sitting dead centre, and this Hamlet almost rivaled that show for gratuitous nudity. Yes, that’s right folks, this was Shakespeare Done By Students, and from the word go it screamed pretention. On entering the auditorium, we were greeted by Hamlet sitting front and centre, flicking a lighter on and off. Oh dear. While I have no problem emphasising Hamlet’s emotional turmoil, this was more teenage angst than soul-destroying confusion. The set was another cause for concern before a word was spoken – a rather bizarre combination of planks, ropes, and a completely unjustified tank of water, which monopolised the stage and quickly became a distraction and inconvenience to the cast and audience. The platform of planks was, however, actually used to good effect during the show, although the ensemble uses of the props could have been more polished. The tank of water bothered me, though. Apart from some rather pompous programme notes from the director, David Brown, there was no justification for it. And, at the risk of sounding like a Maiden Aunt, there was certainly no need for Jack Monaghan’s Hamlet to strip to his itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny boxers and submerge himself during his ‘fishmonger’ conversation with director Brown’s Polonius. The ghost’s appearances were just plain bad. The text clearly states that Old Hamlet’s ghost appears looking exactly as he did when he died, in armour. To make the ghost a giant puppet, much larger than life-size, with a bare skull and rope spine, voiced by Derek Jacobi, was just ridiculous. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you are going to mess with Shakespeare, you’ve got to have a reason beyond your own vanity.
The problem with a student production is necessarily going to be the youth of the cast – although he was really very good, Patrick Warner’s Claudius struggled to bring the weight and power that the role demands due to his fresh face, and a good director would have taught him that it is possible to be angry or forceful without shouting. I found the decision not to dress Gertrude, Claudius or Polonius ‘old’ rather odd (in fact, all of the costumes were bland to the point of irritation), and it made the idea that Gertrude (Catriona Cahill) could be Hamlet’s mother or that Polonius could be Ophelia’s (Kate O’Connor) father risible. The relationship between Polonius and his children was poorly developed, which meant that Laertes’ (Joey Batey) impotent rage at his father’s death was melodramatic rather than moving.
I must concede though, that despite being tempted to flee during the interval, my companion was entranced – confused, but entranced – and the second half showed a marked improvement. The pace picked up, Monaghan suddenly found a compelling energy that had been absent in the first half, and Ophelia’s death in the tank went some way towards justifying its constant presence. Kate O’Connor’s (Ophelia) extreme youth helped her play the part, and she, unusually, played madness better than sanity. The ghost’s disastrous physical embodiment in the first half was happily forgotten, as Derek Jacobi’s thundering voice echoed “remember” around the auditorium, and there was a real freshness and excitement, as though no-one, including Hamlet, knew what he would do next.
Overall, though, I am still irritated when I think back on this production. Brown fell into the common trap of being besotted by ‘difference’ and the need to make this production his own, sadly in this case at the expense of quality. By all means, do Shakespeare in Russian with an all-male cast (Twelfth Night, Cheek by Jowl), but it’s got to be good, and it’s got to be justified. There was no textual explanation for Brown’s decisions that I could hear, particularly the choice to cast Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Katy Bulmer and Helen Parker) as sexual, simpering women. I would dearly love to know the rationale behind the decision to have Hamlet partially blind them both in gruesome detail for their betrayal, too. That said, the gravedigger scene was very funny, the tank was used effectively in the second half, and the death scene was genuinely moving. It’s not his fault, but the fact that Horatio (Jacob Shephard) sounds exactly like Peter Serafinowicz in Black Books was quite distracting. Although this production redeemed itself somewhat in the second half, it was a confused mixture of fanciful ideas that failed to resonate with the actual play.
In the interests of balance, a review that is “all lovey and gushing” can be found here.