Jonathan Hall reviews Amy Letman’s production Wiliam Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse.
Having Hamlet as a set text for 14 and 15 year olds has always felt slightly strange to me; it’s a play in which various characters go through a whole kaleidoscope of complex emotions- grief, lust, vengeance, insanity, betrayal; a range that this fifty-something has to work hard to understand. Add into the mix a ghost, a climatic blood bath plus a fourth-wall defying convention where murderous actions are played out to the protagonists and you have a play that is both fiercely complex and perilously easy to get wrong- and put 15 year olds off Shakespeare for life. The shining strength of Amy Letman’s production is its clarity. The play has been trimmed and streamlined so that scene slams after scene, each one crystal clear in its intent, played with an energy that drives us on to the next stage of the story. I’ve seen- and struggled- with a few productions of Hamlet over the years; this was by far and away the best defined, giving me a strong through-line across the story. This clarity extends to giving life and truth to the many many familiar and quotable lines- some of which I confess I hadn’t realise originated from this play.
At the heart of this complex story is a complex character, the titular Hamlet, riven with and anger and despair so strong it often leaves him (or in this production her) physically gasping at a situation that’s pure Jeremy Kyle: My Uncle murdered my father and married my Mother! Tessa Parr attacks the role with energy and commitment; the scenes where the insanity of Shakespeare’s plot affects the characters own sanity are played with an unnerving compelling electricity. The change of gender adds a great dynamic in her relationship with Ophelia (played by a troubled Simona Bitmate); Polonius’s (another character who is gender swapped) disapproval and manipulation of the pair’s relationship gains a homophobic subtext that adds an upsetting truth to Ophelia’s insanity.
This is a play that carries no passengers; as said every major character has an operatic range of emotions to go through; the parts are played with vigour and truth by the cast. One of the best things about this season at Leeds Playhouse has been the creation of an ensemble repertory company, allowing us to see and grow in our appreciation of the work of actors such as Darren Kuppan, Jo Mousely and Dan Parr. Particularly notable in this show is Susan Twist as the Polonius; after the character’s high handed meddling I was sorry her death was unseen and off stage.
A design of smoke and lit crosses with a murky tomb visible beneath by Hayley Grindle and a menacing subtext of music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite adds to a brooding atmosphere of menace throughout to this strong production, one thoroughly recommended to all- especially any teenagers studying this text.