Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st March, 2020
I’ve lost count of the number of Hamlets I’ve seen over the years, and a problem I have every time I go to see it again is its overfamiliarity. It’s not just a question of knowing the plot; the entire script reads like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with almost every line or phrase well-known and, more often than not, part of our everyday speech. But I’m always interested to see a fresh approach that may shed new light on this most-often produced of plays.
Here, director Michael Barry opts for what he calls a film noir approach – the costumes by Jennet Marshall certainly have a 1950s feel – but apart from the odd burst of slinky saxophone and the occasionally well-placed spotlight, film noir is barely apparent. Not that it matters; the minimal staging puts the performers at the forefront. Played in traverse, the action is within reach, and this works very well for the more intimate scenes. Unfortunately, the stage can be a tad overcrowded with members of the Elsinore court and these scenes can lose focus. A courtly dance is a case in point, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio is swallowed by the music.
That being said, this production has some moments of excellence. Isabel Swift’s Horatio is a masterclass in how to deliver Shakespeare with clarity and emotion – Horatio’s grief at the end is almost palpable. Robert Laird’s Claudius does a good job of becoming increasingly rattled as the action unfolds, and delivers a powerful moment alone, in torment and at prayer. Graeme Braidwood’s Polonius is not so much the ‘foolish, prating knave’ Hamlet claims him to be but rather an austere father and efficient administrator. Papa Yentumi makes for a righteous Laertes and Femke Witney’s Ophelia combines sweetness and ferocity in her mad scenes. As Gertrude, Skye Witney needs to project more in her earlier scenes but in the emotionally charged scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, she really comes to life. Bill Barry impresses as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, keeping things dispassionate and thereby otherworldly.
Inevitably, the production succeeds or fails with its Hamlet. Here the Crescent is indeed fortunate to have the brilliant Jack Hobbis give his Prince of Denmark. Hobbis is eminently watchable, and the show’s highlights are his soliloquies as he breathes new life into those well-worn words. His Hamlet is mercurial yet for all his mood swings, he is never less than regal.
The play culminates in the rigged fencing match and this is staged very well, with an added frisson of excitement being so close to the front rows of the audience. Michael Barry substitutes the last-minute arrival of Fortinbras with a reappearance of the Ghost and a repetition of the play’s opening line, which is an original and effective touch.
Yes, it’s a bit patchy but the stronger moments far outnumber the weak. This is an accessible Hamlet, whittled down to a bum-friendly two-and-a-half hours, held together by a charismatic lead performance and strong support from the main players.