Northern Broadsides/New Vic theatre production of Hamlet is an interesting and truthful account of a great play. There are some terrific performances to savour, some clever direction, and it is a joy to see a company use the space of the Stephen Joseph so cleverly. The company knows the space very well now and it shows. Hamlet is an impossible play to get completely right, which is one reason why it is worth going back to it over and over again. There are always gains and losses however you approach it, but this is an absorbing and intelligent production which sets out its ideas clearly and economically. It would be a great way to see Hamlet for the first time, and there are also fresh insights there for someone who has seen a few Hamlets come and go. It is a delight to see it in a small space where nothing is lost and the audience can see and relish every detail.
I’ll start with Hamlet himself. Whatever choices are made about a character who is all things to all men, that performance is the one thing that absolutely has to ring true, and thankfully it does. Nicholas Shaw gives us a young, dynamic, angry and funny Hamlet, who is struggling to understand both himself and the sickness at the heart of the Danish court. He begins as an isolated figure, the only one who is not buying into the new regime. His mother has let him down and remarried, betraying his beloved father’s memory, his love Ophelia is there at the party afterwards singing her heart out for the happy couple and it only needs his father’s ghost to confirm that his father was murdered for him to be pushed over the edge and start on a journey that is never going to end well. He shares his thought processes with the audience throughout, making eye contact and bringing the soliloquies to life with great clarity, using chalk to help him organise his thoughts from time to time, carrying the audience along with him. He is desperate to revenge his father, but terrified of the eternal damnation that will come from murdering even a guilty man. His inactivity is born of turmoil, not lassitude or lack of will. This ability to engage the audience and allow us to understand him so well makes him the most likeable Hamlet that I have seen. He is fast, young and witty. A bit of a catch!
Ophelia is a hard part to get right, and I can now finally say that I have seen an actress who completely makes sense of her. Natalie Dew’s Ophelia is warm, young, loving and kind, a victim of her own innocence and the self absorbed and unscrupulous people at court. She is left to face the chaos around her with no support and finally comes to the end of her resources. Not mad, exactly, but in extreme emotional distress which leads to suicide. There is a wonderful moment where she gives Claudius his flowers, spitting out her words with great venom. She understands him. She has not entirely lost her wits, just her strength to carry on.
Becky Hindley gives us a clever, somewhat narcissistic Gertrude, who also spends the play trying to work out what is going on. It is a fine performance, the best Gertrude that I have seen, and when she is finally forced to face up to the reality of what has happened it is incredibly moving to watch her fall apart. This is all the more impressive given that Shakespeare gives Gertrude few lines to spell this out in the later part of the play. There is a moving moment where Claudius tells her to come with him, oblivious to her distress, and she starts towards him after he leaves, before realising that she can no longer follow him and making her own way off stage; the shaking wreckage of the stylish woman who we watched shimmy down the ramp at her wedding at the start of the play.
There was some lovely work from the rest of the cast. Andrew Price was terrific as the Ghost, Barnado and the player king. It was a lovely touch when Hamlet was giving his famous advice to the players to have them clearly resentful of someone who was trying to tell them their job. As the ghost he was a completely believable father for Hamlet and spoke with great force and clarity. Playing the gravedigger was obviously a complete gift for Phil Corbitt and he made the most of every word. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played by brothers (twins perhaps?) David and Richard Colvin and they worked together beautifully.
If I had to pick holes, and picking holes in any production of Hamlet is such fun, I would have to say that I think there is perhaps more in Claudius and Polonius than Fine Time Fontayne and Richard Evans found. They both gave good solid performances, but I would have liked to see the persona which Claudius has built up at the start of the play self destruct more clearly and there is a native cunning in Polonius as he clings onto a job he is no longer quite up to which I didn’t quite get.
Conrad Nelson has done a great job as director. The space was used beautifully and there was a clear understanding of the play behind everything that happened on stage. I love the way that music was used throughout to heighten mood and atmosphere, played and sung by the cast, and the 1940’s period set against the eerie wildness outside court worked very well. The stage design gave plenty of levels for the cast to work with and provided a suitably sombre setting.
I have been watching Northern Broadsides since their first production. This production of Hamlet is one of the best things that I have seen them do. They are a unique and very well loved company and I hope that they survive the current recession and continue to go from strength to strength. There is nothing else quite like them.
The photographs of Andrew Price and Nicholas Shaw, Becky Hindley and Fine Time Fontayne, are production stills used with the kind permission of Northern Broadsides. They remain the copyright of Nobby Clark.