Monday, 11 February 2013

Hamlet - review

The Rose Theatre (Bankside), London

For the first time in 419 years, Hamlet returns to The Rose, Bankside. It makes its come back in the form of a nerve-jangling kitchen sink drama which focuses upon the relationships between characters and the harrowing effects humans have upon one another. We enter the cold, dimly lit performance space to the jarring sounds of a radio tuning itself and of intermittent white noise, which immediately sets one's teeth on edge as it sets the premise of the play. We, as an audience, are excruciatingly close to the action and occasionally play the roles of Hamlet's confidants; employing direct address and minor audience interaction, director Martin Parr involves us in the narrative as much as the actors themselves.

The indoor archaeological site of the Rose, and its watery pool alongside the stage in particular, is an excellent backdrop for Hamlet. It creates an incredibly dramatic and disconcerting atmosphere. The clever use of light contributes to this ambiance, a lot of the action being illuminated by dim swinging lamps, torches or the red rope lighting indicating the original Rose stage. The space, despite its obvious limitations at times, lends itself very well to Parr's rendition of this iconic play.

The first twenty minutes feel like an adjustment period, with audience and cast alike adjusting to the language, the presence of one another, and their surroundings. However, once they pick up the pace, and the actors find their footing, the performance becomes immensely engrossing, encouraging me to lean forward in my seat.

With a cast of only four, we witness a switching of roles that, for the most part, works incredibly well. Whilst Suzanne Marie's Gertrude was effortlessly played, her first appearance as Ophelia bordered upon caricature; however, as the play continued, Ophelia's descent into grief-fuelled madness was beautiful and chilling to behold. Watching her teeter over the edge of the pool had me wringing my hands and holding my breath. Jonathan Broadbent plays an intelligent, and at times almost petulant, young, geeky Hamlet. As the events of the play unfurl, we watch him age and mature, his performance becoming deeper and more resonant as we reach the end. On the other hand, his insanity appears too abruptly, and the shift in character is too clunky for the performance to be entirely seamless. Liam McKenna commands attention as both domineering Claudius and bumbling Polonius, as does Jamie Sheasby, who, with a chameleon-like ability, shifts from Laertes, Rosencrantz and the Gravedigger in a skilled performance. Whilst the cast are able to hold the stage individually, the atmosphere between all four crackles with chemistry and charisma; together they create a formidable quartet.

The voice of Hamlet’s dead father emitting from a portable radio placed upon the stage, most of the famous lines and iconic imagery are scattered about openly and almost satirically. Nevertheless, it still seems odd to have Hamlet's father's monologue staged in an almost complete blackout. All of Hamlet's reactions to hearing his father's voice are lost, and the scene disconnected me momentarily from the action. I regret this artistic choice, as this moment is decisive for Hamlet, the turning point from which his character and motives shift. It would have been beautiful to be able to witness this momentous event in Broadbent's Hamlet.

Many may think of Hamlet, or Shakespeare in general, as a heavy undertaking for a Friday evening, but Parr's production is a raw, intimate and stripped-bare magnifying glass for us to observe humanity and family. It's a wonderfully funny, heartbreaking and accessible performance that I urge you to see.

This production runs until 3rd March 2013.

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