Review: ETG 2016: Hamlet

Gemma Sheehan 18 January 2017

Fresh from a European tour, the Cambridge University European Theatre Group bring to the ADC stage a highly energetic, emotionally-charged performance of Shakespeare’s classic, Hamlet.

The cut-down, two-hour version of Shakespeare’s longest play (in its entirety, the play would take around four hours to perform) barrels along at breakneck speed, making for an eminently watchable production, although the swift pace results in certain moments feeling rushed, unfortunately compromising their dramatic weight: such as the murder of Polonius and, particularly, the crucial moment in which Claudius’ guilt is exposed in the ‘play-within-a-play’ scene.

Music adds vibrancy to this production, and is effective in helping to establish mood and tone, which one imagines would have been instrumental (pun honestly not intentional; I’m not that witty) when putting on this production in front of European audiences with limited understanding of the language. For instance, the reprise of the ‘I’ll See You Again’ song following Ophelia’s death allows us to both witness and share in a hauntingly poignant expression of Laertes’ grief for the loss of his sister, as we are inevitably reminded of the initial rendition of the song – a sprightly duet between Laertes and Ophelia which captures the playful affection of their relationship – and thus cannot help but strongly feel Ophelia’s absence. From a purely musical perspective, some beautiful moments worth mentioning are the duets between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the gravediggers respectively.

However, time spent on song and dance presumably must come at the expense of dialogue, to prevent the production becoming too long, and this consequently results in a Hamlet that feels unusually action-packed – Hamlet is normally known as the ‘hero’ who spends more time thinking about what he must do than actually doing anything.

This Hamlet is different, though: Sam Knights’ Danish prince is less contemplative, and, instead, strikingly angry. His flamboyant comic turns, reminiscent of David Tennant’s Hamlet, are greatly amusing, but his rendition of the iconic ‘To be or not to be’ speech – perhaps the measuring rod against which every actor who undertakes this seminal role must be held – feels disappointingly same-y compared with all his other soliloquies. Each of his long speeches follows a pattern of crescendo with culmination in an explosion of bitter rage, which becomes somewhat predictable as the play advances.

Perhaps this is where character interpretation falls slightly short. Or, alternatively, where it brings something new to the table. The absence of any real display of tenderness or vulnerability from Hamlet has the effect of shifting the audience’s sympathies more firmly to the female characters of the play (which, in this production, include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Lucy Dickson and Ashleigh Weir). Dickson’s Rosencrantz and Weir’s Guildenstern are an endearing, delightful duo who, whilst maybe not being the brightest buttons in the box, seem to genuinely want to help Hamlet, and so it seems cruel of Hamlet to mock Guildenstern so for supposedly ‘think[ing] I am easier to be played on than a pipe’. Similarly, Ophelia’s understated ‘madness’ is a welcome contrast to Hamlet’s overblown theatricality, and ultimately more moving in its unaffected simplicity.  Matilda Wickham is in fact a refreshingly 21st-century Ophelia, shying away from the meek and mild type to give us a believable modern young woman, not afraid of her father (nor Hamlet either, in the nunnery scene), but merely going along with his plans out of an exasperated love for the old man (excellently comically portrayed by Colin Rothwell).

The difficulty with putting on a play such as Hamlet is trying to carve out a new route through Shakespeare’s so well-known and widely-performed text – one that feels fresh and individual. In this, I think the ETG are successful: original music, a contained setting, and intriguing characterisations combine to offer an intense, intimate and innovative vision of the play, which is well worth watching.