Preview: Hamlet

Image credit: Sailko

Massive in every sense of the word, from critical reception, cultural impact and sheer length, Hamlet is an ambitious undertaking for any actor or director. But director Ben Lynn doesn’t see it that way. ‘Hamlet’s a student!’ he points out, as he describes a production which intends to make the eponymous hero as relevant as possible. Ben’s vision is rooted in an understanding of and love for the text which has ‘skipped a generation’, seldom being produced for young people without being dumbed down.

The play descends into the deeper recesses of Hamlet’s mind as the action moves through Elsinore castle, a dramatic trajectory which resonated with me as I walked further and further underneath an obscure corner of Pembroke College, into its Old Cellars, where this production was rehearsing. After two sets of directions from the porters, and wrong-turnings into an empty theatre and a cupboard, I found the right room. The Old Cellars are somewhere between dilapidated jazz club and bomb shelter. The cast agreed that it’s a horrible place, but the oppressive atmosphere actually enhanced the urgency and claustrophobia of the scenes I saw, a mood which I’m sure will be carried through to the Round Church.

This is a production where all the characters seem acutely aware that something very bad is happening. Hamlet’s confrontation with Gertrude in her chamber is a particularly fraught and intense scene which left my ears ringing from the reverberating sound. I was sorry to see Polonius’ line ‘Alas I am slain!’ cut, but Ben wants to streamline the production, to focus on the play’s black core. And indeed, one of the many factors which can make Hamlet wobbly on stage is its uneasy balance of comedy and violence. Will Hale, as Polonius, captures the hypocrisy of the character with an admirably physical performance.

Hamlet was a hub around which other characters revolved at sometimes bewilderingly high speed (the scene changes were the paciest I’ve seen in rehearsal). Even in the inauspicious cellar, I could imagine Hamlet darting through the corridors of Elsinore, talking for long enough to leave people confused or upset, then rushing off to torment someone else. Jamie Sayers is deeply unpleasant as the young prince, but humble in conversation. He says that this production is ‘less about Hamlet and more about Hamlet and his relationships’, which is reassuring given that Hamlet is in danger of being a vanity piece for a single performer.

Ella Blackburn plays an unusually assertive Ophelia, conveying how much is lost when she is driven to madness. Rhonwen Cash is a vulnerable Gertrude, but one who makes clear efforts at self-assertion, thwarted by the overbearing men in her life. Alex Hill’s Claudius physically dominates Hamlet, giving the scene where Hamlet looms over the king as he kneels in prayer an eerie sense of inversion, but is twitchy in soliloquy, contrasting his powerful public demeanour with a more uncertain interior.

When it emerged that the play is completely sold out (an extra night on Monday sold out in half an hour) I did question the point of writing a preview, but I would highly encourage you to find some way of seeing it, whether by hiding behind an arras or peeking over a battlement. The play I saw was gestational, perhaps a little monochrome and an entire performance which maintained that level of broodiness would be wearying, especially given the playfulness inherent to the script. But that’s a minor quibble about a production which completely captures Hamlet’s nastiness. If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, you’re sure to love it.

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