Hamlet - Review by Louise Schweitzer.

So – Hamlet. A mountain that every dramatic actor of note would wish to climb and indeed a very great many have done so: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, David Warner and more recently, Simon Russell Beale and Mark Rylance. Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in the 1996 film version and in a YouTube interview, audible to this day, speaks of the difficulty of all the scenes, those with the Ghost in particular. The mountain is not only very high, but tortuous, with precipitous drops to catch the unwary and more ways to the summit than any drawn up by Wainwright.

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays. It has become a happy hunting ground not just for actors, but critics and commentators. Few fictional characters have had such constant analysis: is Hamlet a student of philosophy, an angry young man, a prince of destiny, a madman: how much is he a son, a lover, the heir to a kingdom, a vengeful son of a murdered parent? We ask questions because Hamlet does – in none other of Shakespeare’s plays are we, the audience, taken so completely into the confidence of the central character Another literary canard holds that Hamlet could never decide what to do and spends far too long pondering about everything to do anything. His musings inspire celebrated soliliquies, of which the philosophical conundrum ‘ to be or not to be’ remains the ultimate inquiry.

Young actor Steven O’Shea fell in love with Shakespeare after watching a touring production of Hamlet directed by Ingmar Bergman and performed entirely in Swedish. Up to that moment, he had been mystified by the legend . Light did not dawn so much as flash, and with lasting brilliance – he was hooked.

Bravely, he set about writing an abridged version for the New Venture Theatre Company, and producing a Hamlet that might run for two hours instead of nearly five. O’Shea is in good company: many adults owe their first acquaintance to Shakespeare through the Lambs Tales, a new opera company in Holland is producing Short Form Mozart and the Independent now offers
summarised news for 30p. We must live in an age of condensation.

O’Shea’s Hamlet is dubbed ‘ A Family Tragedy’ thus instantly altering the mindset from Danish kingdom to domestic affair. He concentrates on murder, incest, madness and revenge, which constitute the essence of Shakespeare’s story. Gone are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two courtiers who should have escorted Hamlet to England and who must now wait for Tom Stoppard for their next incarnation. Gone is poor Yorick, Fortinbras and Osric as are sundry gravediggers, officers, lords, ladies, messengers and servants. The Ghost has only one brief independent entry and the Dumb Show in Act lll ( Sc. 2) disappears completely. Hamlet must double up as the dead spirit of his father.

The tragedy exists in itself. We are in no place and no time. Minimal costumes indicate character, not context or period. Ophelia needs a shredded garment just as Hamlet needs a sword but there are few props and the barest scenery. The bleak set with an occasional body, is supremely effective, never more so than in the opening scene when Hamlet lies prone across the floor, requiring the audience to tiptoe past him and occasionally step over. There is a fractional difficulty reconciling the beautiful language of Shakespeare to faintly modern appearance, but no one has ever quite solved that problem and certainly not with pastiche Elizabethan style. Jonny Parlett’s solution was to almost throw away the more significant lines so that their appearance would not halt the drama by recognition. He did this with a manic intensity which just stayed this side of madness. Hamlet is not mad – he is sane, but dealing with the extreme emotion of a violent grief. Watching him clutch Gertrude was drama in the extreme and how well Sarah Davies portrays the mixed feelings of love, guilt, sex and indifference. Gertrude is hard to play: she loves Hamlet desperately even when he shouts and fights her and she remains loyal to her new husband despite her son’s accusation of murder most foul. But somehow Sarah manages theatrical magic to make us understand why her two husbands and her son remain in thrall to her. She does not understand: she is innocent. And how she breathes modern expression into the famous old lines!

The Claudius of Jim Calderwood is nothing of the kind. Oh, how straightforward he pretends to be, and how calculating and manipulative. His suit and tie give him the appearance of a benevolent banker, but he turns out to be Fred Goodwin. His is a memorable performance for its concealed menace and horrible cunning. In contrast, Jerry Lyne portrays Polonius as a easy going charmer and a bit of a fool, albeit with some famous lines with which he deals lightly. Similarly, his children never quite rise in stature until they are nearly dead: James Harkness duels with rare and believable skill and Lily Crossfield’s mad scene is simply brilliant.

All New Venture plays depend as much upon the production team as the actors and in this case, huge credit to, assistant director Mike Stubbs, swordfight choreographer, Michael Grimwood, lighting operation Alex Epps and James McCauley. The bouquet goes to director, writer and creator of a new Hamlet, Steven O’Shea.

And the rest is silence.

Louise Schweitzer.