Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Opened 27 March, 2008

The Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory company has accrued a more than respectable reputation since it was founded in 2000, but its first show by a guest director is a coup by anyone’s standards. Jonathan Miller directed his first Hamlet in 1970, surely before his current prince was born. Resources in this converted 250-seat venue in south Bristol are modest, so the in-the-round staging has no room for the high-concept of some of Miller’s opera productions. The concept here is clarity, and it is admirably achieved.
Shakespeare’s text is specific as to Hamlet’s age: he is 30 years old. Jamie Ballard’s portrayal gets the balance absolutely right: his prince is not an adolescent mess, but nor has he yet gained full maturity. The knowing cadences and gestures he makes are wry and self-deprecating rather than ostentatiously wacky. We can pinpoint precise shifts in his mood and mentality, as when he pauses in the midst of passionate protestations to Ophelia and, having realised that he is being observed (by Claudius and Polonius), takes things up a gear or two in order to seem distracted by love rather than a desire for revenge against his uncle.
Jay Villiers’ Claudius complements Ballard’s Hamlet well. At the moment when Claudius interrupts the play-within-a-play, stung by its resemblance to his own murder of Hamlet’s father, Villiers stands for several seconds staring at Hamlet as if weighing up whether he really knows. In the final scene, Claudius willingly hastens his own death by drinking off the goblet of poisoned wine without Hamlet forcing him to do so.
I am less sure of some other performances: Oliver Le Sueur’s Laertes is never transported by a revenger’s passion, Francesca Ryan’s Gertrude is so self-possessed that I could never decide whether or not she actually believes her son’s accusations. Ophelia’s madness, in Annabel Scholey’s rendering, is more an indictment than a spur to pity, as she accompanies her gentle herbalist’s lines – “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” – by ramming sticks into the intimate regions of her rag dolls. But, through just over three and a half hours (with minimal textual cutting), Miller and his cast give a presentation that is both lucid and compelling; the college-age audience at the matinee I attended, for once, coughed and fidgeted less than a comparable houseful of grown-ups.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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