Review: Hamlet at The Leper Chapel

Toby Stinson 20 October 2019

Richard Spaul’s one man production of Hamlet struggles to stand alone.

Hamlet – a play performed innumerable times in innumerable different ways, but under the snarling image of the Leper Chapel’s few remaining gargoyles, Richard Spaul’s solo production was certainly unlike any that had gone before it. Spaul’s version focused on Old Hamlet’s ghost, whom the production claims to possess Denmark itself: ‘occupy[ing] the voices of the living – attacking them and grinding them down until they too are dead,’. Certainly this intimate performance felt at times like witnessing an exorcism, the howling of Old Hamlet accompanied by the occasional howling of passing trains, reverberating off the chapel’s 900-year-old stones.

Image credit: In Situ Theatre

‘I am dead, Horatio’, gasped a ghoulish Hamlet to open the play with the closing image of his death, before launching back into Act 1 Scene 1, the spirits of the two Hamlets now intertwined. These added asides were the distinctive feature of this production, rasped out to the audience by the ghost of (Old) Hamlet, while Spaul contorted face, body and voice in a grotesque image of ghostly possession. However, while initially unsettling, this device lost its effect at times, with Old Hamlet’s plot-explaining speech of Act 1 Scene 5 stretched almost to breaking point as it was drawn out line by gasping line.

To attempt a solo performance of Hamlet is a bold undertaking, especially when the eponymous hero is a daunting task in himself; at times it was difficult to follow which character was meant to be speaking. Yet the editing of the text and theatrical devices managed to distil the complex narrative into a clear, if controversial, interpretation: the ‘dumb show’ was narrated, Ophelia’s funeral removed, and most shockingly, the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech nowhere to be seen.

Image credit: In Situ Theatre

Scenes with fast-paced dialogue, especially difficult to enact alone, were narrated in near-deadpan tones: most notably the bedroom scene, spoken emotionlessly from the lips of Polonius’ sinking corpse. You could imagine this played out on camera, with Gertrude and Hamlet’s feet visible, riled voices heard while the screen is filled with the bleeding body – but onstage these decisions left something lacking. Gone was the Oedipal connotations of Hamlet’s distemper; Claudius’ Machiavellianism was abated, and the climactic final fight scene was pitched as a narration, swapping seats each line for each character in a melodramatic game of musical chairs.

Perhaps this was the point. This version was all about death and possession, not the perturbed mind of Hamlet. Spaul’s Hamlet displayed more middle-aged cynicism than adolescent despair, his soliloquies delivered as confused cogitations with perhaps more sober rationality than Shakespeare allows him.

Image credit: In Situ Theatre

This performance was clearly intended to unsettle, and it certainly did so, with both Spaul’s Ghost and his Ophelia drawing palpable reactions from the audience. One woman looked visibly terrified as an overly-sexual Ophelia handed her ‘pansies, that’s for thoughts’. As a bold piece of theatre, it was inescapably arresting, yet as a production of Hamlet you couldn’t help feeling that much of the rich complexity of the text was lost in the howling of Denmark’s exorcism.

3 stars.

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