Think of Hamlet in the open air and you imagine gloomy battlements, shadowy ramparts, all the dark portent of Elsinore Castle itself. An amiable amphitheatre in one of London's royal parks does not readily spring to mind. Unsurprising, then, that this is the play's first production here. However, as director Tim Pigott-Smith notes in the programme, it is the London venue which most closely resembles the Globe, where the play was originally staged.
Pigott-Smith has striven for additional authenticity by emphasising the play's roots in conventional revenge drama. He and Roger Warren have "adapted and shortened" the text with an eye to increasing its theatrical dynamism, and also to the necessities imposed by the venue (although at two and three quarter hours, the production still overran the theatre's normal maximum playing time by thirty minutes).
There are sound practical reasons for his decision. Playing styles must
become larger and more deliberate to carry across a space like this, with
a resultant diminution of the play's tragic force; it makes sense to emphasise
the "thriller" element by way of compensation. Tanya McCallin's sheet-metal
set, too, does much to conjure up the desired gloom, especially as night
In fact, the production's biggest enemy is daylight. Unused as we are to such a setting, we find it difficult to immerse ourselves in Hamlet's world in the face of such expansive performances. Not unnaturally, Damian Lewis in the title role suffers especially.
The closet scene with Gertrude, played in failing light, and the final act under full stage lighting begin to invoke the required power. Throughout the sunlit first half, though, Lewis simply appears distractingly histrionic, with an uncanny resemblance to young comedian Ben Miller "doing" a passionate thespian. Moreover, I'm sorry, but there's no place in the Prince's antic disposition for impersonations of a chimp.
The family relationship of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes is one of the production's major strengths. Guy Burgess and Rebecca Egan create an easy and intimate brother-sister bond, while David Collings (although still on the young side for full-blown doddering) is a well-meaning but uncomprehending father. Such ties are sadly lacking in the royal family itself; Lewis and Pamela Miles as Gertrude seldom do more than speak at each other.
This Hamlet must, on balance, be rated a nobly-minded misadventure; like the prince himself, it achieves too little, too late.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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