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Review: HAMLET, Park Theatre

With Robert Icke's Andrew Scott-led Hamlet successfully transferring to the West End from the Almeida, and Tom Hiddleston about to get in on the action for Kenneth Branagh at RADA, it is potentially a very risky moment to stage a rather unique and stripped-back version of the same Shakespeare play. This, however, is exactly what Park Theatre has done as a continuation of its current season.

Hamlet, King of Denmark, is dead. This brings his son, also Hamlet, back from university to mourn his death - only to find his mother (Gertrude) has married his father's brother (Claudius), who has been crowned the new king by the will of the people. So little time has passed since the funeral, and this new relationship doesn't sit well with Hamlet; his suspicions later being confirmed by his father's ghost. He vows to take revenge on Claudius, devising schemes to try and make him confess his guilt. In so doing, he spurns the love of Ophelia and sets a bloody course of events into motion.

In making this a Brandreth family affair, the production is roughly 90 minutes long; Gyles Brandreth and Kosha Engler taking on all included roles other than the Prince of Denmark, who is played by Benet Brandreth. The central conceit is what makes it intriguing: the play is very much a family matter so it should be ideal. There are often Oedipal hints between Hamlet and his mother, so by having the same actress play Ophelia and Gertrude (as well as being the real life wife of Benet Brandreth), this should add extra colour.

Unfortunately this never comes to fruition. With the play being so heavily abridged there simply isn't time to dwell on the characters' relationships - instead you find yourself thinking about who's playing that particular role and why that choice might have been made. Aside from the lack of "Alas, poor Yorick" it runs like Hamlet's greatest hits, the soliloquies coming thick and fast with no pause for thought. Oddly, the references to Hamlet feigning madness are retained, but he has no time (or inclination, seemingly) to actually attempt it.

That being said, it does flow very well; the transitions between scenes (and often which characters are being played) are incredibly smooth, and quite a smart way of getting round the number limitations. With it being set in the present day, the radio announcements (when they don't all compete with one another) give the necessary background at the beginning - though the relevance of the now obligatory "fake news" term being used was lost on me. Ophelia's madness leading her to assume her brother's identity also feels unnecessary, actually making the climactic scene a bit comical.

Thankfully the required chemistry is there, so the basis for the family relationships are clear from the off. Actually, there are solid performances all round - and with regard to separating each personality being played, biggest plaudits must go to Kosha Engler for the subtle changes in her native American accent as well as employing RP to play Ophelia. The standout moment, however, comes from Benet Brandreth with an impeccable impersonation of his father in the play-within-a-play section.

Polly Sullivan's set design is a big positive. Lots of detail has gone into the very middle-class kitchen. Given the pared-down casting - and their family link - it only seems natural that it should be played out in what could easily be the kitchen of their family home.

Like Hamlet himself, I must be cruel only to be kind: this production is simply rather bland. It presents itself more as something for the Brandreth family to tick off their acting bucket list rather than exploring the potential connections and intricacies to their fullest. Not one that will live long in the memory.

Hamlet is at Park Theatre until 16 September

Picture credit: Francis Loney

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