BWW Review: HAMLET, Trafalgar Studios
The famous story of the Prince of Denmark follows Hamlet on his murderous quest to avenge the death of his father. The enduring appeal of Shakespeare's tragedy is the writer's skill in retaining mystery about the eponymous protagonist. He is an enigma and audience's perceptions of him always vary.
Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, and to sit through an unabridged version would take over five hours. Flute Theatre and English Touring Theatre have successfully slashed this duration to only an hour and a half, with a cast of just six.
As a result, there is a speed to the production that makes it quite exhausting to watch. The final scene, which is combined with the funeral scene, is the one place where the action feels a little rushed, with characters dropping like flies within seconds of each other.
With such a small cast, there is nowhere for the actors to hide. Fortunately, they all excel in their roles and work as a tight team. There are many interpretations of the mental state of Hamlet, but Mark Arends plays him as distinctly disturbed. His thin and wiry frame buzzes with nervous energy as his mental disintegration is beautifully reflected in his physical ticks.
In a very successful twist, director Kelly Hunter places the ghost of his father within Hamlet as a kind of spiritual possession (shades of Jonathan Pryce in the 1980 Royal Court production). Arends excels in these moments with a manic energy, which makes the elements of quiet grief even more poignant. His timing is perfectly judged; in the 'To be or not to be' speech, his pauses are as impressive as his oration.
Katy Stephens makes a wonderfully louche Gertrude. We meet her gyrating suggestively against her new husband, downing shots and playing every inch the licentious and bawdy mother that Hamlet despises.
Francesca Zoutewelle's Ophelia is an emotional wreck even before her father is killed. Her grief after the event is instantaneous, deeply visceral and utterly heartbreaking. Like Arends, Zoutewelle communicates her distress in a very physical way, writhing around the stage as though her mental pain is reflected in physical anguish.
Hunter's adaptation retains all the most relevant parts to the story, whilst also bringing some truly novel concepts, such as combining the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with that of Laertes. The most arresting moment is when the characters suddenly seem to stop acting in concern for Mark Arends, who appears to have a sort of breakdown as the intensity of the part overwhelms him.
The limited space of Trafalgar Studios' Studio 2 means every corner is utilised. This adds greatly to the intensity, so the audience feels totally absorbed by what is around them. Anthony Lamble's design is stark and stripped back - simply a black sofa with a black background. This is perfect for the production, as all eyes should remain firmly on the cast and the power of the action.
This is a passionate and brave adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best-known plays that hits like a punch to the stomach. It's the perfect antidote to the panto season.
Photo Credit: Robert Workman