Tag Archives: Hamlet

The Boy Who Never Grew Up

HAMNET

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 21st November, 2018

 

No, you read it correctly.  This is not Hamlet, the great tragedy, but it concerns another production of Shakespeare’s: his only son, the ill-fated Hamnet who died at the tender age of 11 while his father was working away from home.

11-year-old Aran Murphy commands the stage in a beguiling, captivating performance as Hamnet questions the nature of existence.  His refrain is “I haven’t done anything” – referring to the injustice of his untimely end, and the whole of his brief life’s experience.  West embodies innocence and schoolboy curiosity, charming an audience member out of his seat to join him in a scene in which Prince Hamlet is confronted by the ghost of his father.  Hamnet, the boy, is haunted by his absentee father.  “If I don’t talk to strangers, I’ll never meet my dad.”

A perky lad, he has his father’s aptitude for performance.  When his dad finally appears, manifesting on the huge screen that reflects the audience back at itself, the on-stage boy and the reflected boy interact with the figure in perfect unison.  Objects moved by the on-screen Shakespeare move as if by themselves on the stage.  It’s a dazzling piece of stage trickery: they have to pre-record these moments anew at each venue.  Or perhaps it’s some kind of Pepper’s Ghost set-up, brought into the 21st century…

It dawns on us that rather than the son being haunted by his father, the man is haunted by the child he left behind and then lost forever.  A quote from King John is like a punch in the feels.  “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…”

Written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, this is a moving meditation on the nature of life and death, a pint-sized Hamlet, I suppose.  Deceptively simple, this is a powerful production by Irish company, Dead Centre.  Funny, enchanting and poignant, it’s the kind of stuff that stays with you.  Very little is known about the actual boy in question, but I will be haunted for a long time by this breath-taking performance from Aran Murphy (pictured)

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Verily Player One

SUPER HAMLET 64

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Friday 21st September, 2018

 

I don’t know how many Hamlets I have seen, sat through, endured or enjoyed over the years, but this one appealed straight away: a mix-up of the play and computer games… It could work, and by golly, it does!

I’m more of a Shakespeare nerd than a games geek (if that’s the correct nomenclature) but even I get the references to famous figures such as the Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, Crash Bandicoot and so on – and I have a lot of fun identifying lines from the original Shakespeare (Hamlet and other plays) as the play throws new light on them.

The show is the brainchild of solo performer Edward Day.  Armed only with a ukulele against a backdrop on which are projected game menus, scenes, captions and characters.  Cleverly, we can monitor Hamlet’s grief levels… It all fits together beautifully and is held together by a charismatic performance from Day, who exudes a kind of affable intensity.  Day is highly skilled, displaying vocal dexterity in portraying a range of characters, a strong and pleasant singing voice (the songs borrow tunes from the games), and an impressive physicality, moving like a games avatar in a platform game, all exquisitely timed to interact with the animations (which are also by Day).

Hamlet’s father is represented by Mario – here, ‘Hario’ which naturally makes his brother Luigi the evil Claudius.  Gertrude is Princess Peach and Ophelia a sword-swinging Samurai… The acts are levels Hamlet works through; there is a dazzling sequence in which he levels up his language skills so that at last he is equipped to deliver a soliloquy.  This is intelligent stuff and I marvel at the inventiveness on display.  It is also very funny.

Day is so appealing that even when it comes to audience participation, we don’t feel the usual sense of dread.  Hamlet, faced by a horde of zombies (us) goes on a killing spree and it’s hilarious.  The crowd tonight is a select bunch of good sports.  An English teacher beside me declares the show would be an excellent tool to get boys into Shakespeare.  But there is more to the piece than even that.  Poetry abounds, both Shakespeare’s and Day’s, and along with the surprises that make us marvel and laugh, moments of profundity appear.  Life is a game, the play tells us, but we only get one shot at it.  Playing for survival isn’t enough.

A truly wonderful piece of theatre, entertaining, enlightening and enormously enjoyable.  Day is clearly a genius.  I cannot recommend it enough.

This review appears in association with theatrebloggers.co.uk

Hamlet 64 300dpi (photo by Andy Byrne)

“All the world’s a game…” Edward Day (Photo: Andy Byrne)


Drama Therapy

HAMLET

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!

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Something is Rocking in the State of Denmark

ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th September, 2016

 

The title might lead you to expect a jukebox musical but writer-director Bob Eaton’s new piece is all-new, all-original.  Well, up to a point: the plot is lifted from Hamlet and some of the tunes are Ludwig Van B’s.  Eaton also draws on Shakespeare for iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, which give the show a heightened theatricality and also provide the opportunity for some literary gags.  This is Return to the Forbidden Planet meets That’ll Be The Day.   Eaton’s tunes pastiche classic rock and roll hits.  Performed by a talented ensemble of actor-musicians, the songs have an authentic sound and, unlike some jukebox musicals, the songs develop rather than interrupt the plot.

It’s also very funny.

It’s Britain and it’s 1956 and Michael Fletcher is Johnny Hamlet, returning from national service in the RAF to attend his father’s funeral.  His father’s ghost keeps appearing, driving the young man around the bend with his demands for revenge.  Matthew Devitt is in excellent form as the murdered man and he plays a mean guitar – often at the same time.  Young Hamlet adopts a leather jacket and D.A. hairdo as he goes off the rails, while Ophelia (Chloe Edwards-Wood) rebels against her straitlaced father Polonius (Steven Markwick).  Oliver Beamish’s affable Claud reminds me of Boycie at times – and you question if this character could stoop to murdering his brother… Georgina Field’s Gertrude is an energetically common, gorblimey Londoner, bringing a touch of music hall to her songs.   Meanwhile, Larry (Laertes) is dropping hints about his own emotional trials (the handsome Joseph Eaton-Kent, cutting quite a dash); and Niall Kerrigan brings a lot of fun to his role as Teddy boy/wide boy Waltzer.

Patrick Connellan’s set evokes a 1950s dance hall, enhanced by the backdrops of Arnim Friess’s video designs.  Choreography by Beverley Norris-Edmunds adds to the period setting, although for the most part, the cast are playing instruments while moving, acting and singing.

It’s an engaging, amusing show that proves irresistible, tickling the funny bone and setting the toes tapping.  Eaton tempers the nostalgic appeal with touches of social commentary: those who long to return to Britain as it was in the 1950s would do well to be reminded of the unhealthy aspects of the era, from the prevalence of smoking (it was good for you back then!) and the law against homosexuality, to name but two.  Also, “everything was in black and white and there was no Radio 1” – Every cloud!

This is a feel-good Hamlet, if you can imagine such a thing.  On reflection, I wonder if a different title might suit it better: we expect to hear the titular song but it never comes, although what we do get is more than good enough.

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Michael Fletcher as Johnny Hamlet (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

 

 


Fresh Prince of Denmark

HAMLET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 14th April, 2016

 

I don’t know how many Hamlets I’ve seen – the most recent was the Cumberbatch one in which I found the cast excellent but the whole somehow lesser than the sum of its parts.  One thing I do like in my Princes of Denmark is youth.  Hamlet shouldn’t be pushing forty.  He works better, I find, as a younger man, unsure of his role in the revenge drama that his life becomes when his uncle marries his mother so soon after the funeral of his father.  Uncertainty, indecision and depression can strike at any age, to be sure, but (as in this production) there is increased credibility when the life that’s turned upside down is that of a younger man, still finding his way in the world.

And so, Simon Godwin’s production begins with a snapshot of Hamlet’s graduation from Wittenberg Uni.  At once, Paapa Essiedu in the title role captivates.  Everything Hamlet will state later on about the Player King applies here: it’s all in his eyes.  Early scenes of grief and shock hit hard – Essiedu handles the all-too-famous soliloquies well, casting light and shade in surprising areas.  His lunacy, here signalled in shorthand by abstract painting – he gets as much on himself as on his canvases – adds unpredictability.  Above all, sensitivity comes to the fore.  This is a Hamlet we can care about.

Clarence Smith’s lying king Claudius gets across the public face of the dictator as well as the personal side – he can’t run his household as well as the state.  Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude is coolly elegant – at her best in the bedroom scene, horrified to see her husband’s ghost and strident in her denial of the phenomenon.  Cyril Nri’s Polonius is a star turn, funny and charming in his longwindedness.  His fate behind the arras also elicits laughter in its suddenness and slapstick.

Ewart James Walters impresses as the Ghost, in tribal robes, sonorous and forbidding.  He also plays the smart-alec gravedigger, with a twinkle in his eye.  Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia seems curiously sidelined until her mad scene, pulling her hair out and handing it around like sprigs of the herbs she names.  It’s always a difficult sell but Simpson makes it work, terrifying the court into singing her refrain.

Denmark has moved closer to the equator for this African-themed show.  Well, why not?  After all, Disney borrowed the plot for The Lion King.  Loud drums punctuate the more extreme moments and the colour palette suggests heat and intensity.  The music (by Sola Akingbola) reminds us this is a thriller, despite Hamlet’s vacillations.   The climactic fencing match with Laertes (a striking Marcus Griffiths) is done here with sharpened sticks.  The poisonings are swift and shocking – events come to a head in an outburst of action that breathes new life into the well-worn plot.  There is freshness in Godwin’s take that keeps this Hamlet watchable and affecting, but it’s Essiedu’s performance that is the keystone of the production.  Powerful in its intimacy, it’s a portrayal that touches and then breaks your heart.

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Paapa Essiedu banging his own drum as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Great Dane

HAMLET

Barbican Theatre, London, Friday 11th September 2015

 

Currently the hottest ticket in town due to the presence of everyone’s favourite Cumberbatch in the title role, Lyndsey Turner’s production lives up to the promise and the hullaballoo. In the headlines because of ardent fans trying to capture the performance on their mobile phones, leading to the leading man making a statement, and then for the leading man’s pleas for the audience to toss money into buckets to alleviate the greatest refugee crisis known to humanity… This show comes with a lot of baggage.

I have seen countless productions of Hamlet and each one throws up the question, How old is the Danish Prince supposed to be? He wants to go to school in Wittenberg, presumably as a mature student, and he used to ride on Yorick’s back – the jester has been dead and buried for 23 years… Taking all this into account, I’d say late 20s, 30 at a push. Mr Cumberbatch is creeping up on 40, but this is what acting means: his Hamlet is a moody, post-adolescent, student-type, the kind you used to get in the 1960s. There is a youthful energy to his more manic moments, countered by a sober bitterness to his starker, depressive speeches.

The show begins, not on the battlements of Elsinore, but in Hamlet’s room. He’s playing Nature Boy by Nat King Cole, wallowing in the melancholy emanating from his record player, before he’s called down to join the celebratory dinner at his mother’s wedding to his uncle. The wall flies up and the full extent of the stage and set is revealed. A gasp almost sucks the air from the auditorium. Es Devlin’s palatial set puts us inside Elsinore. There is grandeur and opulence, ornamentation and power. A house is a well-established metaphor for the mind, and a haunted house for insanity. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father (the splendid Karl Johnson in a suitably spooky moment) is what tips the balance in Hamlet’s noggin. From that point, his behaviour deteriorates and the house falls into disruption and decay… By the second half, the house is like a bombsite, full of mud and rubble: Hamlet is at war with just about everyone. I can’t help thinking of the poor old stage crew, having to clear it all up before every performance!

We get lighting changes to isolate asides and soliloquies, and during some of the transitions, the cast judder and jitter like a DVD stutter or a videotape rewinding, like mental tics, I suppose, brief flashes of distorted reality, glitches in the matrix.

Hamlet marches along the banqueting table, dressed as one of his own life-size toy soldiers, fannying about in a man-size fort. I can only assume he had these giant toys as a small boy for them to be so handy. The toy soldiers bit I don’t like so much but there is no denying the power of Cumberbatch’s delivery of all the key speeches. The play is Shakespeare’s greatest hits album, Disc 1, where every other line is famous. Cumberbatch, and indeed the rest of the cast, keep the well-worn phrases fresh. “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…” is a highlight, as is “I have of late but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth…” and, of course, “To be or not to be…” is a set piece, a lesson in how it’s done. “Alas, poor Yorick…” gets an unwarranted laugh – the line is the cliché that identifies the play, and is the butt of countless parodies. The play suffers from its own familiarity, its lines so embedded in popular culture and everyday speech. Cumberbatch’s inflections shed new light: this is a Hamlet we can understand rather than find disturbing. We like him but we don’t fear for him losing his marbles. There is always the sense that he will cope.

For me, Ciaran Hinds as Claudius matches Cumberbatch in terms of star quality. We only glimpse overt villainy a couple of times: Hinds is the duplicitous politician, charming and plausible on the surface. Knowing what we know (through Hamlet’s eyes) this makes him all the more dangerous.

Anastasia Hille is a stately, restrained Gertrude, whose attire and demeanour deteriorate in tandem with her son’s mental health, and Sian Brooke works wonders with Ophelia’s tricky and awkward mad scenes.

Inevitably, a director has to make cuts. The text is too long for comfort. I appreciate the decision to keep the Ghost from us until Hamlet himself sees it, but I mourn the omission of Hamlet’s Irish friend: the ‘pat’ is excised from the “Now might I do it” speech!!

The play itself is flawed. Similarly this production is patchy; it’s more about moments rather than moment or momentum.  The visual impact of Gertrude clambering up a slag heap in pursuit of doomed Ophelia punches you in the face, but curiously, Turner’s staging choices do not show Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play, which is surely the point of that scene.

We end with the excitement of the fencing match (thrillingly choreographed by Bret Yount) and the tragedy of Hamlet’s demise (we don’t really care about anyone else kicking the bucket). Fortinbras arrives and picks his way over the rubble for a downbeat denouement.

We clap our hands off. I am most pleased to have attended the event rather than being moved by it. And, of course, I am gratified to have seen actors of the stature and skill of Cumberbatch and Hinds, playing their roles like virtuosos.

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Holding the fort: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. (Photo: Johan Persson)


They F*** You Up, Your Mum and Uncle

HAMLET

RSC, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 28th March, 2013

 David Farr sets his Elsinore in an old-school school hall.  Wood panelling covers the walls.  Low benches from P.E. lessons and metal-framed stacking chairs.  Upstage, steps lead to a proscenium arch and a platform with some heavy duty chairs and table.  The wooden floor is marked with tramlines and fencing foils hang from the walls.  Fire doors lead off to the exit.  Above the proscenium, rather subtly, is the legend, Mens sans in corpore sano.  There is also a handbell knocking around but it’s the accoutrements of fencing that dominate – the sport rather than the gardening variety.  The masks especially are put to good use (Hamlet’s dad’s ghost wears the full rig-out) and the foils are put to almost constant use.

Hamlet (Jonathan Slinger) appears right at the start, in a black suit, still sobbing over his father’s death and what has followed.  With that suit and his specs, he looks like Philip Larkin.  But rather than a provincial librarian turned poet, Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University – a mature student, it would appear.  We are in the early 1960s, judging from Jon Bausor’s designs – Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) in skirt, tights and sensible shoes is either a student or teacher, or perhaps a student teacher, shedding an armful of exercise books to throw herself into a passionate embrace with Philip Larkin, sorry, Prince Hamlet.  Horatio sports a jacket with leather patches at his elbows.  Laertes wears a polo neck.  This is the era before hair got really long and clothes became really colourful.

It’s a dingy Denmark, traditional and staid. But as we know, there is something rotten in the state.  The problem with Hamlet, I find, is it’s too familiar.  Almost every line is a famous quote.  It’s like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits or even the English Language’s Greatest Hits.  So much of the play has entered common usage, it takes an excellent production to make the lines sound fresh and new and current within the context of the production.  This one does that, but patchily.  I suppose if this is your first Hamlet it’s a strong one but a long one to begin with.

Slinger doesn’t look like a Hamlet but he sounds like one and can drive a good soliloquy.  He has an impressive range of sarcastic gestures and mockery, and his energy never flags in a performance of contrasts and colours, mood swings and madness.  At one point he enters singing Ken Dodd’s Happiness but sadly without the tickling stick.  In scenes with his mother (Charlotte Cornwell) his petulant, rather teenage protestations are perhaps the greatest stretch of credibility, but on the whole this melancholy prince gives an impressive turn.  If you disregard the fact that he’s breaking most of the instructions he gives to the Players when they arrive.  Like his half-on and half-off fencing armour, the part doesn’t quite fit him, try as he might.

Nixon is a striking Ophelia, abused by Hamlet: he strips her down to vest and tights as if she’s forgotten her PE kit – and by the director: she has to lie dead in the dirt downstage centre for the final scenes while all around her is action and murder.  Horatio (Alex Waldmann – now there’s a Hamlet I would like to see) is a beatnik intellectual but no less genuine in his affection for his royal friend.  Greg Wise doubles as Claudius and the brother he murdered; his Ghost of Hamlet’s Dad is eerie and moving, while his murderous Claudius keeps a tight rein on himself until he’s alone and at prayer.  It was a special treat for this Rock Follies fan to see Charlotte Cornwell as an elegant Gertrude, looking fabulous in couture but also powerful as the woman who has unwittingly participated in her own and everyone else’s downfall.

I adored Robin Soans’s prissy and self-important Polonius and was sorry to see him stabbed behind the arras (ouch!) and as his son, Laertes, Luke Norris cuts a dashing figure.  His final confrontation with Hamlet doesn’t look like a fair fight, and indeed, it isn’t.

It’s well worth seeing but it’s more of a “Let’s see how they do this bit” kind of show rather than an engaging presentation of tragedy.  I didn’t get beyond regarding the actors as actors, or appreciating the technical aspects of the production, rather than being moved by the characters.

Larkin about

Larkin about (Photo by Keith Pattison)