There can be no more apposite piece for Behind the Arras to review than “Hamlet” !
Most would have it amongst the finest plays ever written, it is certainly the play about which most has been written. Yet although its reputation helps any production, it does have a significant downside. It is about the most widely read play. That means that almost all of an audience will have read the play first, and all will have their own idea about what Hamlet, the character should be, creating an almost impossible task for the actor charged with the title role.
Co-produced by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Tobacco Factory Theatres, the action unfolds in front of a grimy single set castle interior, with colour coming from convincing Elizabethan costuming, both created by Max Johns. Director Andrew Hilton has assembled a very strong cast. Paul Currier is superb as King Claudius, commanding the stage whenever he appears, Julia Hills, equally convincing as his Queen, particularly in her scenes with Hamlet. Ian Barritt’s Polonius is avuncular, his advice timeless, his unfortunate demise, behind the arras, still shocks. Isabella Marshall’s Ophelia is a madcap, barefoot delight . Her manic screaming and singing unsettles and engages in equal measure.
Alan Mahon is a fresh faced, youthful, Prince. Initially he adopts the demeanour of a whiny, spoilt, teenager, before developing into a disturbed, bereaved schemer. He handles the soliloquies well, and shows a light touch in the Gravedigger scene, avoiding the schmaltzy cliché which can surround the “Alas, poor Yorrick” skull speech. Yet his realization of the character feels strangely detached, we aren’t cheering for him to put right the wrongs.
The language, rhythm and metre of the script are exceptionally brought to life by the cast who remind us of so many familiar phrases and beautiful sequences as the production proceeds. It succeeds in being sufficiently familiar to please purists, while being sufficiently accessible to appeal to first time theatre goers. As such it is open to the charge that it lacks distinctiveness, but to his credit, Hilton’s focus is on individual performances and the script, rather than attention grabbing diversions. It works well.
I did reflect that if Quentin Tarantino had written the blood soaked finale, critics would be railing against its excess. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes is compelling and gripping, a tribute to fight co-ordinator/director John Sandeman. Too often staged fights can feel artificial and lame, in this, they looked as though they meant it, the cloak usage significantly adding to the drama of the event.
A fine production, and fitting 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death tribute, the company are also playing “All’s Well That Ends Well” in alternate performances on tour, which finishes in Derby on Saturday 28th May, but continues nationwide until 18th June.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.