Hamlet is a play of such manifold complexity that any stage production, amateur or professional, must sacrifice some element of its virtue in order to nourish another flower. This is not a crime of neglect, but rather the beauty of such a heterodox script, that one may see two productions of Hamlet, on following nights and yet be moved by wholly different aspects. It is with this in mind that I ventured to the last play of this wonderful New Theatre season. Rae-Scott’s production is, at times, unorthodox, yet is as compelling and richly portrayed as any this reviewer has seen. What makes this production so unusual is the diversity of characterisation, sometimes to great effect.
Our protagonist, the melancholy prince Hamlet (James Lewis) finds himself confronted by the ghost of his father (David Maggs) who charges him with avenging his murder. This he discovers was the work of his uncle (Tom Walsh), now the new king and new husband of his mother (Anna Wheatley).
This is therefore a play of some weight and gravity (some have argued the greatest play ever written). The set and dim lighting immediately evoke a sense of sumptuous and stifling opulence as the audience takes their seats. The rich tunics of the characters only serve to heighten this sense of oppression, cast against the bare and scant looking Hamlet, clad only in simple black.
Lewis’s Hamlet captures the essence of the Dane in an unusual way. His timbre and pace build a wonderful skittishness to the character, and of particular note is his sensitive handling of the soliloquies. Faced with texts of such Gravitas, Rae- Scott and Lewis have clearly thought at some length about the most sensitive and emotionally engaged portrayal, which shines through. On a critical note, Lewis has a slight tendency to raise his voice at the end of a sentence, which becomes somewhat repetitive but this is a small matter next to the spiraling mélange of procrastination and inertia he expertly weaves in the climactic scenes.
Another performance worthy of special note was the incredibly effective Claudius played by Tom Walsh. His feline presence was palpable, luxuriating like a house cat in his tall throne beneath the sumptuous silk. His potent physical presence is counterpointed by a truly Macbethian conflict. To me this was simply the finest ‘my offence is rank’ speech I have seen on stage.
Other principal characters were all skillfully portrayed. Wheatley’s Gertrude was demurely and ably played, yet I felt a slight frustration that when she was poisoned, it felt less lamentable than in past productions, due to her short time on stage. Herzberg’s Ophelia was wonderful in flashes such as her madness and ‘get thee to a nunnery’. I felt Rae- Scott may have made a conscious decision here to make Ophelia incidental to Hamlet’s trajectory within the play. If not, this certainly occurred and I felt she was sidelined slightly, even when on stage. Mellor’s impetuous Laertes really grew into his own in the final scenes. Surprisingly he fits well into the symbolic role of young Fortinbras, as a paragon of what Hamlet ought to be. The supporting cast were strong in places, but were made somewhat background characters, which was particularly noticeable in the demoted importance of Torrance’s Horatio.
Perhaps though this touches on a point of conflict in Shakespeare: how can stage business construct what lines have no time to say? In this matter there is much to be said for this production. Its stage use was excellent, its prop-work sparse and well employed, and the feeling of claustrophobia oozed from the sectarian lighting. That said this is not a production without one or two flaws. I felt that Rae-Scott placed too much emphasis on meter and not enough on meaning. The effect of this is that some characters at times failed to enjamb lines, which required no break in between them. This, of course, is a matter of individual interpretation. Another aspect of concern is the direction of the stage business. Whilst I commend the directorial commitment to not face the audience all the time, some lines were delivered sideways, without the due compensation in projection which should accompany this change.
Overall what is one to say about a play so vast and multifaceted in such a few words? What is certain is the beauty and sensitivity with which Rae-Scott and his team handled this leviathan piece. The cut, though lamentable purely for the beautiful text lost, retained much of the original’s most essential components, whilst rocketing the play along at such a pace that I left feeling eager to see more. The performances were polished, precise and, most crucially, true embodiments of their characters. Everything was believable, I never once thought I saw an actor on stage in this immersive and genuine production. This has been a sterling end to a sterling season of plays and amid the biting winter’s chill; I walked away from Hamlet keenly feeling the warm seep of poignancy. I can give no greater accolade than that the tragedy is still as keen today as ever it was.