Park Theatre 22 August – 16 September. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Hamlet. In 90 minutes. With a cast of three. One of whom is Gyles Brandreth.
Sounds like they’ve given it the 39 Steps treatment. Alas, not.
Edited by Imogen Bond, and the directors and cast, this production hurtles through the text like a runaway train, cherry picking the greatest hits and consigning some wonderful moments to the rubbish heap. Anyone coming to this play without a working knowledge of the plot (that Simpson’s episode won’t be enough here) could end up wondering just what the hell is going on in the state of Denmark. There’s not a skull in sight.
The action all takes place in a beautifully designed country kitchen, amplifying the family claustrophobia, but with no relationship to the royal status of the characters at all. And the rain sound effect gets a little tedious – yes, it’s miserable, wet and stormy for the characters inside and out – but after about 75 minutes, it just serves as a clarion call to weaker bladders.
The casting conceit is intriguing – Benet Brandreth playing Hamlet, his wife, Kosha Engler playing Gertrude, Horatio, Ophelia and Rosencrantz, and his father Gyles playing Claudius, Polonius and the Player King. It does bring a more obvious frisson to Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, and makes any signs of tenderness between Gertrude and Claudius slightly more unsavoury, but isn’t enough on which to pin an entire production.
Benet Brandreth’s Hamlet isn’t given enough time to build. There’s a reason the original play is so long – the audience is watching the inner turmoil of the man, and the unrelenting pace of this production doesn’t allow for any nuanced building of tension and mental anguish. So, Benet Brandreth just comes across as angry and loud. Or angry and quiet. His soliloquies give a glimpse of what he could achieve in a better production, as he spears the audience with his eyes to great effect, but this is a very one-dimensional prince. Kosha Engler gives a phenomenal performance (performances?) in her roles. The changes between characters are rapid, with sometimes just a breath between them, but Engler’s shifts in accent, tone and body language make it instantly clear who she is portraying. Gyles Brandreth just can’t get rid of the twinkle in his eye as he acts – it’s like watching your favourite uncle pratting about on stage. But even if the darker moments aren’t quite as dramatic as they should be, he has his moment in the sun as the overacting Player King. Actually, this is quite a funny Hamlet, the highlight being Benet Brandreth giving a pitch perfect impression of his father in the play within the play.
Directors Simon Evans and David Aula’s decisions can be puzzling, but some pay off – the madness of Ophelia causing her to take on another personality led to an interesting final confrontation that showed promise, but ultimately lost any emotional impact as actors switched between characters. This production isn’t a disaster, but it has an identity crisis, which is appropriate for Hamlet, I suppose. This production is a brave, but flawed, attempt at editing one of Shakespeare’s most intricate texts but it has no heart. Lots of brains, but no heart at all.