Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 23rd February, 2018
Director Oliver Hume’s production strips Shakespeare’s four-hours-plus great work right down to two fifty-minute chunks. With much of the text excised, what we are left with comes across as Hamlet’s Greatest Hits. All the main plot points are intact along with the majority of the iconic speeches and for the most part, the cast of five handle the blank verse excellently, so it sounds and feels like Shakespeare with modern voices.
Hume sets his version in a doctor’s office, complete with portable screens (the arras!) and a full skeleton (doubling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and poor Yorick). With Ashleigh Aston leading the cast as Hamlet, a psychiatric patient, the rest are dressed as doctors, nurses, orderlies and what-have-you, and double, sometimes treble, as other roles. The action of the tragedy unfolds, leading to its fatal resolution, and while I enjoy particular scenes very much (Ophelia’s mad scene, To Be or Not To Be, the ‘fencing’ contest, Hamlet visiting his mother’s chamber) and I can’t help wondering where it’s going. At some points, the setting is little more than a backdrop; at others, it works very well… and I question if this is all in Hamlet’s mind, why are we getting scenes in which he doesn’t appear?
Ashleigh Aston makes for a superb Hamlet, with a sensitive, impassioned portrayal, convincingly unhinged when the need arises. She is supported by a strong quartet, among whom Bryony Tebbutt’s Gertrude stands out, Hayley Grainger’s Ophelia, and Alex Nikitas’s imperious Claudius. Edward Loboda makes an impression as Polonius and a hot-blooded Laertes.
Three cast members share the role of Horatio, donning a brown hat so we know it’s him and it is this device that is the key to the entire concept. Hume pulls his ideas together right at the end when, (SPOILER!!) after all the deaths, the medical staff resurrect themselves and wake their patient, handing her the brown hat. It has all been a dramatic reconstruction to help Horatio get through the trauma of what he experienced at Elsinore…
Bravo! Suddenly it all becomes clear and it’s a real ‘Ahh!’ moment.
Truncated it may be, but definitely not lacking in drama and some superb handling of Shakespeare, breathing fresh life into the well-worn lines and coming at the play from a new angle. This play’s the thing!