Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

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Hamlet may or may not be Shakespeare’s magnum opus, but the Dane is unquestionably one of the greatest roles in the English language. Theatre’s pop star Robert Icke, what with his reputation for hot takes on the classics, no doubt found the play’s allure irresistible. This Hamlet, freshly transferred to the West End from the Almeida, is a slick, beast of a production surpassing three hours. Undeniably contemporary, it does its best to smash the restrictions of the proscenium arch with a celebrity cast and achingly cool, Scandi/corporate design. His casting of Andrew Scott in the title role and subsequent character choices makes this a Hamlet for cool young people on the hunt for profundity, depth of meaning and instagrammable aesthetics.

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Hamlet in Bed, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Michael, a typical New York City lost soul, is obsessed with Hamlet. He knows the play inside out and pours over every bit of scholarship he can find on it. His neighbourhood secondhand bookseller puts anything aside that he might be interested in and this time, he’s struck gold. A diary from forgotten ex-actor Anna May Miller details her rehearsals for Hamlet, a failed relationship and a child she put up for adoption on the day Michael was born. The orphaned man, desperate for a mother and to enact his perfect version of Hamlet, creates an elaborate scheme to cover both bases in Hamlet in Bed.

What is more of a treatise on Shakespeare’s play than a journey of personal discovery is also a creepy, misogynistic story of stalking and entitlement. The two interweaving storylines are given equal measure by writer Michael Laurence, resulting in neither reaching full potential, though Annette O’Toole gives an electric performance as Anna May.

The imagery-laden beginning of the script is a feast for the ears. Though the start makes for a great aural experience, the best scene is an extended rehearsal for Michael’s Hamlet where a debate on the characters’ intentions becomes a thinly veiled filter for their own issues and insecurities. Also, the scholarship on display in this scene is in-depth and spot-on. An anti-climactic end is a lost opportunity for Anna May to condemn his self-centred exploitation of her weaknesses, which creates an uneasy feeling that his actions are deemed acceptable. There are also entirely too many coincidences to make the story believable, and a few occasions where choices aren’t fully explained or justified.

Though the story revolves around Michael, played by Laurence, O’Toole’s performance completely dominates his. It’s not at all to do with any shortcomings on his part, but a total mastery of craft on hers. The privilege of seeing a stage and screen legend in an intimate venue at least partially alleviates the problems in the script.

With questionable themes and a script that can’t decide what it wants to be about, Hamlet in Bed has several glaring flaws that a re-write would be able to solve. Despite these, O’Toole’s performance is fantastic, and great to watch.

Hamlet in Bed runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Hamlet, Ophelia – Part One, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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What would Hamlet have been like as a child? Ophelia? Were they close? Did they squabble or were they the best of friends? Shakespearian Lovers, a new female-led company from Italy, attempt to answer these questions in Hamlet, Ophelia – Part One. In this version Hamlet is played by a woman, bringing a quiet, feminine sensitivity to the role considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest. Despite performing in their second language, the two women have a sound connection with the contemporary English text that shows the two grow from playful children to adults at Gertrude’s wedding to her second husband. There are some major issues with staging and the ending needs work, but this gentle, little play stays true to Hamlet’s personality as reflected in Shakespeare’s text and has the strong foundations of a good script.

Of the two performers, the perky Ophelia is the stronger. She has a natural curiosity and handles the English script comfortably. Hamlet is much more reserved and often too quiet to easily hear, but she has an intellectual intensity that suits the character. Though Hamlet’s femininity is not disguised, masculine pronouns are used throughout – the relationship in this piece wouldn’t differ from one gender to the other, Ophelia is clearly female but Hamlet’s ambiguity interferes with any potential statement about his gender.

The script has a sensible progression through childhood and into adulthood. They play as equals but as they grow, the difference between the son of a king and the daughter of a minister informs their interactions. The affection they have for each other is genuine and heartwarming, though the circumstances life deals them requires formal restraint, even through teenage hormones. The ending needs development and resolution in order to emphasise why the it is where it is, and the reason why this story is being told needs clarification, but the characterisation is sound.

The staging is the primary issue with this production. The venue is too small to allow space to be clearly differentiated through either distance or lighting and there is no backstage. Private moments lose their intimacy and physical expression is restricted, particularly when they are playing, and Hamlet tries to express his grief for his father’s death.

This is some promising work from a new international company. Even though a native English speaker’s advice would be useful to sort out a few minor mispronunciations, the confidence and ability both actors display in performing in a foreign language is impressive. With additional work on the script and fully realised staging, this has potential to be a great two-hander.

Hamlet, Ophelia – Part One runs through 28th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Hamlet, The Rose Bankside

The Rose, the tiny fringe theatre built on the remains of its Elizabethan original, is one of the most unique theatres in London. It has its issues, though. Rather than the hierarchy with an artistic director at the top, it is managed by a team of artistic associates, all volunteers. Due to the lack of  an individual’s clear programming vision, the productions here are hit and miss. Their current production of Hamlet, though it has a few moments of invention and effectiveness, largely misses the mark due to poor performances and a huge reduction in length, which hacks the dramatic arc and character journeys to bits.

Of the cast of seven, Luke Jasztal as Horatio is the only one with completely consistent characterisation and stage presence. As the confident, loyal friend and member of the court’s inner circle, he holds the plot together and picks up the energy in lagging scenes with warmth and charisma. Chris Clynes in the title role is more believable once Hamlet decides to feign madness. His ‘to be, or not to be’ is simple and honest, and he is full of energy whilst deeming Polonius a fishmonger. Clynes’ initial sullen sulk casts him as an overgrown, spoils teenager rather than a grieving young adult, but fortunately he gets over that quickly. The remaining cast tended towards either completely flat, monotone delivery or overwrought melodrama, with little light and shade between the two performance styles. The verse handling is also hugely inconsistent amongst this cast.

At nearly three hours if left intact, to reduce Shakespeare’s script to 90 minutes removes a lot of action. Though director Diana Vucane’s edit is linguistically seamless, major plot points are inevitably lost. The focus on Hamlet is maintained, but with so much of his dialogue cut, his character choices come across as unjustified. With The Rose’s 90-minute limit on productions, perhaps Hamlet isn’t the most suitable for this venue.

Some of Vucane’s choices were strong, whilst others questionable. Hamlet’s use of puppets in the players’ scene was inventive, but the impact of the scene was diminished with the murder reveal coming from Hamlet rather than strangers. Contemporary dress also worked in this casual, reduced version of the original but the number of costume changes was excessive and pointless. I stopped counting after Ophelia’s dresses numbered four, in as many different scenes. The rich sound design that stood in for the ghost and scene transitions was rich and spooky, but inexplicably gave way to vintage show tunes. (I’ll never know why “The Lonely Goatherd” made an appearance, or Judi Dench’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” after the evocative introduction.) She utilises the rear of the The Rose rarely, but it is striking and powerful when she does. If she cast the play, she ought to look at her audition process in order to secure more consistent talent. No lighting designer or fight choreographer is credited, but both of these elements are well done and can count towards Vucane’s strengths as a director.

Though the abbreviated length works against the original play, with the performances given it largely goes in this production’s favour. Diana Vucane shows some promise as an emerging director, but her choices need more clarity in their justification. Luke Jasztal is a pleasure to watch, and Chris Clynes gets closer to his level eventually, but this Hamlet, like the Midsummer mechanicals, is tedious brief.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.