Monday, 13 March 2006

Hamlet - English Touring Theatre 2006

English Touring Theatre, London, UK.

This production of Hamlet, by the English Touring Theatre, concentrates on giving life to Shakespeare’s words. With a simple backdrop, almost bare stage, muted period costumes, and smoke effects throughout, the audience are allowed to wholly focus on the actors and their craft.

The promotional photos for this production show Ed Stoppard as Hamlet as a clean-shaven, tidy, and rational-looking man. So I was extremely pleased to see him appear onstage as bearded and slightly dishevelled, with a rather hungry look about his thin face and body. At first I was less than impressed with his performance: his speech was rather fast, and he seemed more out of sorts than wholly mad. But as the play went on I began to be fascinated with his expressive face. When too often theatre is all about spectacle, Stoppard shifts the focus inwards, bringing all our attention to his face and his lips, as the words and emotions fall from them with a real depth of feeling.

Anita Dobson is a rather forlorn Gertude: a woman that anyone with a mother could feel pity for. Saddened by the behaviour of her son, confused by the actions of her husband, and hiding from her grief, she is a woman merely used by others. It was rather sad to watch it slowly dawn on her that she has been poisoned.

Alice Patten as Ophelia plays the role in a rather standard fashion: timorous and obedient as expected, without bringing anything new to the character. Likewise Michael Cronin as Polonius: standard ramblings from a character who never achieves real presence on stage, despite his physical bulk. Cronin actually seems to make more of an impression in his other role of Gravedigger.

With their synchronised bowing and awkward silences, Liam Evans-Ford and Rhys Meredith make an intriguing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At their entrance onto the stage, Rosencrantz is tossing and re-tossing a coin: a lovely nod to the well-known play by the elder Stoppard.

Patrick Drury, (the Ghost and the Player King), gives a shining performance, and his speech as the Player King rivals some of the ‘real’ speeches of other characters. With their bright costumes, (the Player Queen dressed as Elizabeth I) the larger-than-life Players build up a welcome tension as they put on their play. Unfortunately, due to the way this scene is staged, I was unable to see the reaction of Claudius (Davis Robb) to their show.

Directed by Stephen Unwin, on the whole this is an enjoyable show. I was, however, expecting this production of Hamlet to be far more powerful than it turned out to be. I felt it lacked certain binding elements; as though things had not quite clicked in the way that they must in order to bring that special spark to a play. 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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