REVIEW: Hamlet, English Repertory Theatre ✭✭✭

English Repertory Theatre - Hamlet
Rachel Waring as Hamlet. Photo: Guy Dovell

English Repertory Theatre, Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone
February 18
3 Stars

How well do we really know Hamlet? This is the fundamental question posed by the consistently thought-provoking, streamlined version of the play currently showing at the Cockpit Theatre. We may think we know the play, at least as an inextinguishable cornucopia of quotations, but the passive and reflective act of reading the play is very different from experiencing it as drama. Moreover, given the length of the play when performed complete (well up with a Wagner opera at 4-5 hours) there is in fact no canonical or predictable performing tradition to fall back on.

Every director makes, indeed has to make, a variety of cuts and interpretative choices simply because of the play’s fascinating but also flawed superabundance. Each interpretation has to be partial and selective in order to make sense at all of the many competing readings of the action and of the motivations of the lead character that are present in the original text. This is much more of a ‘problem play’ than those later works in Shakespeare’s creative trajectory that conventionally carry the name.

English Repertory Theatre and director Gavin Davis have devised a version with a running time of only 100 minutes (with interval) that states at the outset ‘there is no ghost, there is no equivocation, only revenge’. A grouping of white tables and chairs, reconfigured in each scene, in a way that harks back to Peter Brook sets an abstract tone. The scene is completed by a schoolroom setting in which Hamlet, Ophelia, Rosencrantz (here merged with Guildenstern) and Laertes are tutored by Horatio and Polonius with Gertrude and Claudius as (apparently) Headmaster and wife.

There is no ghost, effectively no gravedigger scene, and the first two acts of the play have been telescoped so as to remove much of Hamlet’s delays and equivocations. Hamlet learns of his father’s murder by letter rather than a walk on the wilder side of the ramparts. What remains is a play of action rather than reflection, in effect a ‘Revenge Tragedy’, but one driven by adolescent angst and resentment of all forms of authority rather than by political or strategic calculations.

There are real gains to this approach. There is a flow and freedom to the action that is very welcome especially when the resources of the Cockpit (in-the-round and multiple exits and entrances) are used as well as they are here to generate continuous interaction and restless movement.

In particular, the final scenes of the play zero in on the final tableau of death with a relentless uninterrupted focus that is most compelling and refreshing. Likewise the scenes in which authority is confronted and wittily mocked shine brilliantly and genuinely amuse within a schoolroom scenario.

The competitive punning of Polonius and Hamlet is genuinely funny here rather than tiresome, while convincingly presented as the rivalry of pompous teacher and star pupil that tips over into a deadly struggle for control. The contrast between the smooth ‘House of Cards’ operator that is Claudius and Hamlet’s raw distaste for corruption in all its forms also comes across with authentic, quivering power, especially in the tense moments of the King’s attempted confession.

However, in other respects the pathways explored here are less fruitful and even confusing. The absence of the ghost weakens the force of Hamlet’s motivation and the presence of Ophelia in the classroom throughout Hamlet’s scheming radically shifts the emotional engagement between them by making her complicit in and aware of far more of the business than Shakespeare allows.

Drastic reshaping of text and action is surely always permissible so long as it preserves a lucid account of the emotional and psychological matrices that connect the leading characters. By accentuating some features of the plotting and eliding others this adaptation unfortunately does not always preserve that authentic patterning, and anyone coming to the play for the first time in this version would miss a great deal.

Truly great productions of this play do not try to capture and develop all the psychological angles of commentary in Hamlet’s protean, teeming mind; but they do strive to hint at all of them generously so that the audience’s collective imagination and inherited knowledge of this play can then do the rest of the work and fill in the gaps.

The very strengths of this production are therefore its weaknesses too, as is exemplified in the schoolroom rendition of the slaughter of Priam by the ‘rugged Pyrrhus’, in some ways the highpoint of the first half of the evening. It is a fine, elegant, and dramatically funny conceit to represent this satire of revenge melodrama as a school lesson on the Iliad that gets gloriously out of control at the expense of classics-teacher Polonius.

But to run this into a fragmented and frankly garbled account of ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ does real violence to Shakespeare’s intentions, and misses one of the great moments of the play where verbal precision, inwardness and delicacy are essential, whatever the reading of the central character’s dilemmas. This was not the only moment in the production when there was uncertainty over when, how and why to manage the transition from brittle satire, dry humour and bracketing of emotion to genuine sincerity and open conviction.

These issues could (ironically) be resolved more satisfactorily with more attention to the sound and texture of the very language of the play which again and again internally suggests the points at which subtle changes of pace and colour and rhythm are needed.

The most successful actors were those who used the verse to best advantage rather than forcing it to conform to a generalized single emotional corset. Polonius (Oliver Hume), Claudius (Jon House), and Gertrude (Helen Bang), throughout, and Hamlet (Rachel Waring), in the later stages of the play did excellent work in this regard; and one felt that all the cast would increase their confidence in working with the grain of the text as the run progresses once they have relaxed enough to see all the help that Shakespeare gives them.

These reservations about interpretation should not detract from the overall sustained high intensity and quality of the cast where there are no distracting weak links, and much deft, energetic and original work, especially in stage movement. As Hamlet Rachel Waring was particularly effective in the second half, where the physical energy, angry wit and simmering disdain she displayed in the earlier scenes was transmuted into an implacable embodiment of ‘my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.’

It was a mistake to add an interval to this production and a star fell from the banner of this review in consequence: if you are going to play Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy then the thriller needs to run its course and gather paceuninterrupted.

That said, for anyone with a passion for new approaches to Shakespeare, this is an engrossing night at the theatre, which is controversial in the best sense. As ever, the animation of conversations at the bar in the interval and after proved the best recommendation.

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