Hamlet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

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Alan Mahon as Hamlet. Production image by Mark Douet.

Any production of Hamlet where Polonius stands two feet away from my front row seat in the round at the Stephen Joseph and speaks one of the most famous lines in the play directly to me- “though this be madness yet there’s method in’t”- gets my vote. This production by the Tobacco Factory theatre company works a treat- it was a very good place for the young people who were lined up along the back row to start. It is clear, fast and well edited and it zipped along in the small space like a thriller. The company know how to use the round to full effect and it showed.

Alan Mahon has had very good reviews for his performance in the title role and I am happy to add to them. He reminded me that Hamlet is young, naive and untried- the actor is only 23 himself and it is unusual and refreshing to see someone so young in the part. By chance I had just watched two great Hamlets, Simon Russell-Beale and Adrian Lester, talking about playing the part and they had agreed that Hamlet was naive. I hadn’t thought about this properly before and then the very next day along came a Hamlet who showed me exactly what they meant. More than ever the death of this particular sweet prince was the loss of someone with potential, someone who might have done great things. He is clever but he has been too busy studying rather than developing social skills. He doesn’t really understand about the unpleasant realities of the world until they kick him the face and he is forced to face up to them- a steep learning curve that he first tries to avoid and ultimately doesn’t survive. Alan Mahon also worked on the cuts made with the director, Andrew Hilton, so some of that fast moving thriller quality that I saw is partly down to him. I am glad that he was given his chance. To see the soliloquies spoken by Hamlet alone in the centre of a small space was very moving. Some of the quiet, thoughtful qualities that can be there in Hamlet were not so evident but that was not what was being played so I didn’t mind. Every Hamlet is different- especially the really good ones- and that’s what keeps you coming back.

There was good support from the rest of the cast too. I particularly liked Laertes- I always do- Callum McIntyre was suitably dynamic and good looking and the sword fight at the end was terrific. Isabella Marshall was a heartfelt and gentle Ophelia and I enjoyed the fatherly qualities that Alan Coveney brought to his Horatio, who was older than usual. I felt that there can be more to Claudius and Gertrude than we were shown by Paul Currier and Julia Hills but I am not complaining about anyone in the cast. The speed of the production and the cuts perhaps made it harder for the characters who surround Hamlet to make their mark. There are always gains and losses in any approach.

I don’t often praise directors- unless it is to say that I am glad that they have not done too much- but I was full of admiration for the detailed work that Andrew Hilton has done to make this production so clearly told and speedy and give us the Hamlet that he and Alan Mahon wanted. The whole show was almost entirely without props or furniture and it ran like clockwork. I also had the pleasure of a close up view of some very beautiful Elizabethan costumes designed by Max Johns- a more unusual sight in a production of Hamlet than you might think. I was very happy.

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Hamlet. Northern Broadsides/New Vic Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 22-03-11

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.


Hamlet. Sheffield Crucible. 23-09-10

John Simms Hamlet at Sheffield Crucible has attracted a lot of silly and sometimes snide comment ( along with the admiration) even from those who should know better,  so I shall start by saying that he is not a celebrity, he is a fine actor, and whether he is “better” or “worse” than David Tennant is totally irrelevant. Every actor who is faced with the challenge of playing Hamlet digs deep into themselves to find the character, someone who is all things to all men, and their take on the part comes from what they find there. It is John Simm’s first Shakespeare role and I saw only his second performance. He can be proud of himself without any doubt. His Hamlet is very much a bookish student rather than a sweet prince. He speaks the verse simply and directly, with a clear understanding of the text and is able to make it live. He is relatively old to play Hamlet, but he portrayed a man who is young, dynamic and vulnerable, a slight figure on stage who thinks quickly and intelligently, someone who is not easy to fool. I liked his relationship with Ophelia, particularly during the play within a play, and the obvious love that he had for her made the scene at her graveside very moving.

John Simm and John Nettles as Hamlet and Claudius. Production still by Tristram Kenton.

The rest of the cast provide solid support. John Nettles is an excellent Claudius. He begins with the kind of constant overbearing bonhomie that invariably hides something and during the course of the play, as this is stripped away, we see him realise that one way or another his sins are going to find him out. Hugh Ross is very good indeed, a warm, funny and irritating Polonius and a wise, sharp witted gravedigger. I also liked Colin Tierney very much as Horatio. He has great presence on stage and was a credible friend for Hamlet, more than you could say for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who I felt were a terrible misjudgement. Barbara Flynn’s Gertrude was nicely done, although I prefer a sharper, cleverer reading of the part. Michelle Dockery looked lovely, moved well and spoke the verse beautifully but I couldn’t help feeling, later in the play, that Ophelia’s madness doesn’t really sit well with that kind of composure and elegance. I have never yet seen an Ophelia who completely works for me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will. Laertes is a nice part for a young actor, an uncomplicated, dynamic, loyal brother, and Tim Delap played it with just the right directness and attack. I was delighted by young Alexander Vlahos as Osric. It was a quirky little cameo, done with great style, which never descended into a comic turn.

John simm and Michelle Dockery as Hamlet and Ophelia (watching the players perform). Production still by Tristram Kenton.

The set was a simple, grey curling balcony with central doors and bookcases underneath and the empty space of the Crucible stage jutting out in front. The atmosphere seemed to be drawn from somewhere in Eastern Europe with wintry birch trees visible during the outdoor scenes and a cold dim light. The staging was sparse with little furniture and few props. This left the actors relying on the verse, which is good, especially in a wonderful, intimate space like the Crucible, but it did make for one or two awkward moments where they had to work a bit too hard to find variety and different levels. All the cast played the space beautifully, including all the audience on all three sides and drawing us in.. Malcolm Ranson, who must have directed more stage fights than I have had hot dinners by now, treated us to a terrific fight with foils at the end of the play. All in all it was a great evening. Hamlet is such a complex play that there are always gains and losses however you approach it. It will never be perfect and we shouldn’t expect it to be. That’s what makes it worth coming back over and over again.

Hamlet. BBC/RSC/illuminations. 2009.

I never got to see David Tennant’s Hamlet on stage so I was very pleased to see it on film. It is beautifully shot, mostly in a sumptuous ballroom location, with some lovely camera work, using close ups, asides to camera, and a cracked mirror to great visual effect. There is no weak link in the cast, although I was a little disappointed by Mariah Gale as Ophelia. She looks beautiful but sometimes lacks conviction, and her mad scene is rather too beautiful for my taste. The gravedigger could have found more depth in his part too. Penny Downie and Patrick Stewart, both hugely experienced classical actors, are excellent as Gertrude and Claudius and work extremely well together using body language and eye contact to suggest the details of a relationship which are not always laid out in the text. Oliver Ford-Davies makes a very good Polonius, an aging man who is fighting against the fact that he is beginning to be seen as an old dodderer by his children and some of those at court but still has the capacity to be dangerous. My favourite performance was that of Edward Bennett as Laertes, heartfelt and believable, a loyal brother and dutiful son who is never in any danger of thinking too precisely on the event.

As Hamlet himself David Tennant starts off very well. He has an intensity as an actor which works well for him in the early part of the play and he is believable as a grieving son who has been pushed over the edge by the loss of his father and the behaviour of Gertrude and Claudius. The early soliloquies are very well handled and are beautifully shot in close up. He reins himself in and we are drawn into his grief and confusion. Later on, as he feigns madness and begins to toy with the people around him I found him rather too manic and lost that intense identification with him that I felt at the start- for me it became a performance full of sound and fury which didn’t signify nearly enough. We need to see Hamlet as we see him at the beginning from time to time as a foil to his game playing and I didn’t feel that we quite did. Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I started beautifully as Hamlet destroyed the security camera which had shown us some of the action and flung himself down on the floor to think, but it ended in a rush of activity and gesture which I could have done without. There are some beautiful directorial touches which are carefully preserved in the film and I admire Greg Doran’s work very much but I would have been tempted to rein his star in a bit and let the fierce intensity which David Tennant can project do the job. Shouting and running around pulling faces is no substitute for his natural presence as an actor. It may well have worked better on a large stage where there was plenty of empty space for him to fill. A very good Hamlet then, but not a great one.

Having said all that any production of Hamlet is always something of a curates egg in that however it is approached there will always be gains and losses. The Player King and his troupe suffered a little from the way that they had to slot into the whole style of the production and John Woodvine- a very talented and experienced Shakespearian- was not able to run at his part with relish as he might have done in a different production. For me this production had a lot to enjoy but didn’t quite hit the mark. I always come away from Hamlet feeling that- it’s one of the reasons why it is worth going back to it- so that doesn’t take away the fact that I enjoyed it very much and I am very glad that it has been recorded so skilfully on film.