Review: Hamlet by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

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In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, a verbal battle of abuse ensues out of boredom between main characters Estragon and Vladimir, in which the decisive and final blow is the ultimate derogatory term ‘crritic!’. If, the role of a critic is one to be abhorred, spurned and disgusted at, then what place have they in judging the ‘worth’ of inherently subjective art?

Such thoughts came to mind when watching Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s production of Hamlet. Performed at the Dukes for a limited run of shows, director Andrew Hilton brings a fairly straight adaptation to the stage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as too many times have we bared witness to seemingly illogical adaptations of Shakespeare that put the quite overtly early modern drama out of context; the most disappointing example being Mark Rylance’s mid-war version of Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, that cast ageing Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as the explicitly young Beatrice and Benedick. It’s safe to say that the sexual undercurrents of their dialogue didn’t quite have the same potency.

So Hilton sticks to a classic Hamlet, making this production extremely accessible for newcomers to Shakespeare. A shame then, that the atmospheric in-the-round theatre is less than half full for the opening night performance. Sure, the audience isn’t all made up of people who were probably Lancaster University’s first-ever graduates, but it’s a little disappointing to find that more students don’t take advantage of the city’s vibrant artistic scene – especially with balcony standing tickets going for a fiver.

Set in regal Denmark, we open onto a discovered ghostly apparition of the recently deceased King Hamlet, who has been steaming round the grounds for a few nights, eerily bobbing his head this way and that. Meanwhile, young Prince Hamlet is a bit pissed off, looking like a stroppy teenager as he sees his recently widowed Queen mother Gertrude cop off with his father’s brother Claudius. Things go from bad to worse when he meets the Ghost, who informs him, from beyond the grave, that Claudius murdered the King in order to get the throne.

In general, Hilton makes really great use of the round. Becoming a bedroom, royal throne and even a meta theatre, space is used effectively and mesmerizingly. The repeated appearances of the Ghost in each of the four corners of the auditorium, backlit in white, give him a suitably spectral presence, emphasising the ambiguous characterisation as to whether he is actually the dead King or not.

Though the most exhilarating use of space comes right at the end, in the expertly choreographed final fight. John Sandeman, the fight director, makes the fencing match between rivals Laertes and Hamlet scary to watch, and genuinely immersive. It’s pure theatre at its best, as metal glints into bloodied bodies thirsting for revenge.

Alan Mahon’s performance as Hamlet is convoluted, much like the character. Equally juggling mourning, madness and comedy (the play actually has some pretty funny gags for a tragedy), we get to see all sides of the Prince who retains his bitterness to Claudius right until the end. Whilst Hamlet is complex, the acting can sometimes feel a little too complex, without any inherent meaning; suddenly we jump from a bawdy sex joke to a traumatised soliloquy. It’s somehow simultaneously conflated and fragmented, and perhaps more emotional transition between these parts is needed.

Here’s where we hit a problem.

‘Crritic!’, I feel you cry, echoing Beckett in all his modernist disestablishmentarianism. How can I, a mere undergrad, judge the vast intellectual might of directors and actors; of artists? How can I possibly know what Shakespeare intended? And was the word ‘disestablishmentarianism’ really necessary?

I don’t know answers to any of those questions, apart from the latter (it was). It’s impossible; the criticism is only half realised. All I can do is take in this performance in a contemporary, middle-class, Western context, and hope for the best.

Speaking of which, there was one clear element of Hilton’s Hamlet that was the best; Isabella Marshall as Ophelia. Controlled by her father Polonius, the absolute farcical parody of patriarchy, marvellously portrayed by Ian Barritt, she is loved and then cast aside by Hamlet, her father and society. Marshall’s facial expressions and movements are subtle, mirroring the bodily control expected by an early modern woman, but tell us all we need to know about the low-brow sexism of Hamlet and his mates. The later drastic change into a carnival madness, jumping and singing discordant nursery rhymes of murder, is pulled off magnificently by Marshall, making her prior repression an impetus for Ophelia to burst on to the stage, and violently tell of her subjugation. In a seemingly continually enlightened society, Ophelia here represents why feminism is vital and so important. Her death is perhaps the most tragic in the production, and the least staged.

Yes, there were a couple of errors regarding line articulation; yes, maybe Hamlet could have been more of a complete character; and yes, I am a bit of a ‘crritic’. But the fact is Hamlet at the Dukes is a great, often brilliant, adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic that deserved to have had a superior turnout. If the travelling Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s production comes to town again, it’d be a waste not to go and see this solid performance. After all – ‘the play’s the thing’!

 

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