David Ward 15 January 2009

ADC Mainshow 13th – 17th Jan

There is almost too great a deal of things to consider when mounting a production of any Shakespearean play, let alone the infamously convoluted Hamlet. One must mould one’s own stylistic concept, one’s own interpretation of the eponymous Prince and those characters affected by his actions; the text must be cut to suit the expectations of modern audiences and the necessities of modern theatres; and it must maintain tradition without being afraid to venture into the inventive, ambitious, and potentially contentious. The home-run of this year’s ETG production does not quite hold up to close scrutiny, but it requires a scrutinous mind to find its faults. For this is engaging, often quite visceral, theatre, that generally appeases both intellect and soul. Just as the production team must condense the intricacy of Hamlet into a reasonable running time, so must a reviewing condense a thousand opinions on the production into 600 words.

The production design is what one remembers vividly long after one has left the theatre. At the centre of the stage stands a tank of water, which is used throughout the performance, from Ophelia’s talk with her brother in Act I, to the gravedigger’s scene (featuring a perfectly pitched Gravedigger played by Rob Frimston). With the power to give life as well as destroy it, it is an inspired touch by director David Brown to make it the focal point of not only the stage, but also frequently the action.

Similarly impressive is Brown’s ability to judge the amount and tone of comedy within his production. It never comes out of place, but offers casual relief at opportune moments, never destroying the drama or detracting from it.

Invariably Shakespeare lives or dies by the actors playing his roles. Jack Monaghan’s Hamlet is somewhat of a petulant and stroppy teen, with his madness appearing suddenly after the meeting with his father. He has a tendency to rather over-egg the most dramatic moments, and he is a somewhat unsympathetic character, but I’m not adverse to unsympathetic Hamlets.

The ensemble is assured and occasional exceptional; Brown’s portrayal of Polonius is comedic yet touching, Patrick Warner’s Claudius is villainous without venturing into the inhuman, and Kate O’Connor’s emotional insecure portrayal is despairing in the best possible way. It was invigorating to find a student ensemble who were such natural speakers of Shakespearean dialogue, and the chorus work their socks off, without losing sight of their individual characters scattered around the play.

And now for the ‘but’. Brown’s miss-application of music that only peppered the opening half of the production unfortunately returned in the final moments of the second half, which punctured the tension, aggression, and tragic despair that Hamlet creates. Hamlet and Laertes’ battle was overscored to give it all the emotional atmosphere of a John Woo set-piece, and Horatio’s closing monologue was shunted aside for the strains of Damien Rice, hammering home the importance of water in the production.

I complain so vehemently because Brown was nine tenths towards achieving a perfectly balanced and judged production before he lost his trust in his audience in these closing moments. It needed to rely more upon the sounds of the stage; to let the stamping of feet, the breathing of tired bodies, and the gasps of onlookers, create atmosphere, not the pounding of music from a CD.

Similarly, the motif of water, which had played such a pivotal role in the realisation of Brown’s interpretation, rather than being left to rumble on in the minds of the audience during the curtain calls, was blasted at them through the medium of Rice’s ‘Cold Water’.

This review is badly lop-sided; it gives far too much attention to one negative aspect of an altogether assured, stylistically strong, and consummately applied production. However it is because of this, that the review is so.

I commend the industry, talent, and application of all involved in this production, however it falls at the last, vital, hurdle. Brown deserves this criticism because he is a director of tremendous promise and has a stylistic flair that is rarely seen in student directors; but, certainly this production at least, required him to take a leap of faith in his audience, to trust the theatre and its potential to enrapture an audience by the mere whisper of an inhalation.

Altogether, it is a beautiful production that has the power to completely captivate its audience at times, and it would be difficult to find better student Shakespeare, let alone better student Hamlet.

David Ward