All those well-known soliloquies – "Oh, that this too much griev'd and sallied flesh/Would melt...", "Why, what a dunghill idiot slave am I!..." and of course "To be or not to be, ay, there's the point..." – become rather less familiar in the First Quarto text of Hamlet. A pirate edition, apparently dictated from memory, the Quarto is structurally a much more theatrical work than the "authoritative" text now used – not least in that it is little more than half the length of the usual mammoth Hamlet. However, it is plainly corrupt in many places, a fact brushed under the carpet in the programme notes to Jonathan Holloway's production for Red Shift, which portray the First Quarto as no more and no less than an acting edition of the play, so to speak.
Holloway further undermines his notes by writing "The First Quarto plays at around 2 hours" and then directing a production which runs for a little under three. Most grievously, however, his company of six men and two women uniformly fail to rise to the challenge of Hamlet, regardless of which version it happens to be. Peter Collins as the Prince takes much of the first half to work up even to a walking pace, and never really conveys Hamlet's thought processes, let alone the agonies of his indecision; Guy Oliver-Watts as Claudius is as anodyne a villain as Collins is a revenger; Sally Mortemore's Gertrude, jealous that Ofelia [sic] gets all the best madness, goes a bit doolally herself after her confrontation with her son.
The staging itself is as inventive and intelligent as we have come to expect of Red Shift. A quartet of steel towers-cum-rostra serve as everything from rooftop spires to Gertrude's bed, and also as the surfaces on which taiko-style drumming rhythms are beaten out by the cast. Ofelia does not sing her mad songs on the stage, but rather wanders around while Jon Nicholls's marvellous pastiche-Portishead arrangements of them play over the speakers. Hamlet's "I'll no more of it; it hath made me mad" is beautifully judged as he and Ofelia come to blows and he sinks to the floor in remorse. However, the Bloomsbury Theatre can be a much more unfriendly playing space than it may appear, magnifying the acting deficiencies. The net result is that, despite the tighter plotting and text, three hours of Hamlet can seem almost as sluggish as four and a half.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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