Review: Hamlet

Image credit: Gabriel Humphreys

Taking on a seminal Shakespearean text – a play that has likely been read by nearly every member of the audience in school – will always be a challenge. However, it is even more impressive to mount a monster of a production in an unconventional space with student actors and limited rehearsals. The ADC on Tour production of Hamlet, directed by Ben Lynn and staged in Cambridge’s iconic Round Church, did just this. Lynn’s vision created an aesthetically beautiful imagining of the play in an intimate space with staging that demanded your full attention.

The cold, stone-faced setting of the Round Church, lit by burning candles and sparse LED lights, set the perfect tone for the harrowing journey that unfolds throughout this tragedy. After a haunting vocal performance by the whole cast, King Claudius, decisively portrayed by Alex Hill, and Gertrude, played by the self-assured and convincing Rhonwen Cash, commanded the stage to illustrate the complicated family breakdown about to occur in Denmark. The actor portraying the titular hero of the play, Jamie Sayers, held his own against iconic lines that have been delivered by the likes of David Tennant, Kenneth Branagh, Ben Whishaw, and Jude Law before him. His characterization of the impassioned, grieving youth created a Hamlet on the brink of insanity. However, Sayers also brought a heightened level of sensitivity and care to the role. One particular highlight of his performance was the “to be or not to be” speech which he delivered while wielding a single candle like a sword, a beautiful image that almost foreshadowed his eventual death battle with Laertes.

Will Hale’s characterization of Polonius brought a terrific levity to the darkness of the play, with physicality that seemed to fill the whole church as he delivered convoluted, humorous asides while comfortably commanding the staging in the round. Ella Blackburn, as the tragically-fated Ophelia, produced one of the strongest performances of the production; her haunting singing voice and weepy-eyes have an ability to move you, in spite of the distractingly large stain on the back of her dress. With the exception of an ill-conceived unrequited romance played for comedy between Claudius and the somewhat bumbling Rosencrantz, the ensemble of Hamlet produced a cohesive and tightly-paced show, which rightfully rarely gave the audience a chance to relax. An exceptional moment which showcased the cast’s exceptional synergy was the scene where Hamlet confronts his father’s ghost; staged with nearly all of the actors encircling the audience, the chilling, sinister dialogue was delivered with great precision as actors took turns saying the ghost’s lines with no hesitation. The especially foreboding moments were pronounced with more than eight voices in perfect unison. Directed by Tom Nunan, the fight choreography performed by Sayers as Hamlet and Charlie Saddington as Laertes was another notable moment of harmony.

The minimalist scenic design, which relied primarily on the changing degrees of light emitted from candles and LEDs, was particularly effective in letting the dialogue and soliloquys take centre stage. A few elements of the costuming, hair, and makeup were rather distracting; watching Hamlet scramble to push his hair out of his face after brutally stabbing Polonius very abruptly pulled the audience out of the action. Also, the gaudy accessories worn by more minor characters like Rosencrantz did not seem to exist comfortably in the play’s reality.

It’s not often that you get to see a classic play performed in a building with the weight of almost 900 years of history palpably present. Through innovative staging that created a vivid universe far larger than the theatrical space itself and a clearly-connected company of players, Hamlet in the Round Church created what is sure to be one of the most emotive and exciting productions this season. 

8/10

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