Review – Hamlet

Nov 11 2011 | By More

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St Brides Community Centre

Review by Thom Dibdin

Exciting and satisfying touches to the casting of the Grads’ solid version of Hamlet provide an extra lift to the production which is running at St Brides all week until Saturday.

Here is Hamlet played pretty much as straight revenge tragedy – by the son of a Danish king for his murdered father, but with the added frisson of a sexual tension that succeeds in clarifying the collateral damage of Ophelia’s death.

Under David Grimes’ direction the company have gone for modern dress, minimal set and a staging that extends the thrust stage almost to the point of being in the round. The concept works well, freeing the company to focus on telling the story.

Matt Davies’ Hamlet veers neither to heights of madness nor depths of overplayed despair. There are times when you wish he would as, for the most part, he rather cruises through his lines without finding any great clarity of meaning. At other moments, however, he lets Hamlet’s emotions hang out, with great impact.

It is left to Nick Cheales as Claudius to find the real depths of anguish. While Hamlet’s responses are all quite understandable – given the enormity of seeing the ghost of his murdered father wandering around – Claudius gets to search inside himself as he discovers the true horror of his own actions in killing his brother the king, taking over the crown and marrying queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.

Indeed, Claudius’ moments of self doubt are the closest that Grimes comes to giving the whole production a contemporary resonance. Here is a man who is, himself, crippled by the enormity of his crime. His only way out, to kill again.

Beside him, Wendy Mathieson gives a great account of Gertrude, who you feel has married again so quickly for nothing more than political expediency. Both actors have the quality – necessary for any successful Shakespearian actor – of being able to give their lines meaning without forcing the rhymes or meter of the words.

The big twist comes in the casting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s chums from university who Claudius calls to the palace ostensibly to try and help Hamlet come out of his fits of depression. In reality, they are part of Claudius’ plot to have Hamlet murdered in England.

By casting Rhiannon King as Rosencrantz and Helen Goldie as Guildenstern – and slipping them into slinky, figure-hugging power-dresses – that “old chums” relationship suddenly has a new level of meaning. If it weren’t enough that all the tricky wordplay between them begins to ooze sexual tension, Grimes’ direction more than indicates that their relationship has been three-way.

It is more than some piece of juicy gossip, though. Their predatory pacing around the stage substantial alters the audience’s perception of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia.

Whatever else was going on, Sara-Jane McGeachy already provides a brilliant Ophelia. She is utterly believable as the vulnerable, sheltered teenager who is enchanted by Hamlet’s previous attentions but desperate to do the bidding of her overbearing, fastidious mother Polonius (the excellent Lorraine McCann in the second piece of gender-blind casting).

Add the venomous looks of the Hamlet’s old flames, and you have a rare understanding of Ophelia’s role as victim in the whole destructive curve of the play. Ophelia’s meeting with Hamlet, when she goes to return his love letters, is a whole tragedy in itself. McGeachy so visibly crumbles under the enormity of her situation that you fully expect her to get off down to the river straight away.

It is not all perfect from the 16-strong cast. Ross Hope’s Horatio could be quite a bit more forceful – you don’t quite believe that he will be capable of telling the world of the tragedy, as Hamlet entreats him to at the end. Matt Howden brings a suitably uncouth attitude to Ophelia’s big brother, Laertes, but rather overplays the shoutiness of the role.

There is also the matter of the staging in the near round – which does mean that the whole company need to pay special attention to diction and clarity. It is already an acoustically challenging hall and the actors are not always helped by the music that accompanies some of the scenes.

Elsewhere there are some excellent moments. In particular, Beverley Wright is in fine voice as the Player Queen and John Kelly obviously relishes the role of First Gravedigger. Indeed, Kelly provides the strongest taste of the comedy in the lines, comedy which is not always realised by all the cast.

There is, however, plenty to satisfy in the production. One which proves that the Grads clearly know that the play’s the thing.

Grads website here

Run ends Saturday 12

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Comments (1)

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  1. Susan Wales says:

    I was out of town for the run but was able to attend the dress rehearsal. For once (!) I agree with you Thom!

    I thought SJ’s Ophelia was so vulnerable – just loved her portrayal. So good to see her in a serious role.

    I couldn’t quite understand the gender change for Polonius but thought the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern swapsie was smashing and worked really well.

    John Kelly made such an amusing gravedigger – brilliant in his Scottification of Shakespeare’s lines.

    All in all it was a very good production and told the story with clarity.