Thursday, June 20

Hamlet – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The first production of Hamlet in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the Shakespeare’s Globe was an event to look forward to.  The intimate candle lit wooden interior of the playhouse provided the opportunity for a very different feel to what is probably the best play the Bard ever wrote.  What a disappointment it turned out to be.

It started well enough, the initial scene on the battlements with the ghost was in complete darkness and when the candles were lit for the subsequent scene the characters were dressed in more or less traditional Elizabethan costumes; the stage was bare apart from one or two chairs and a large circular well in the middle.  There were a few inconsistencies:   Horatio, sported a modern university type scarf and a single musician sat on stage with a very modern guitar.

But as the play progressed, the inconsistencies dominated.   Some of characters started turning up in modern dress. The text began to sound a little bit less like the version I remembered and after the first interval, the wooden panelling at the rear of the stage had been replaced with graffiti covered surfaces, presumably deranged doodling by the Prince of Denmark.  Thereafter, the production became more and more idiosyncratic: The Player King’s speech   about Hecuba was replaced, for some unaccountable reason, by a section from Romeo and Juliet, Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia became part of the theatre troupe and Ophelia, having changed from traditional into very modern dress, for her madness scene appeared to be more under the influence of some illegal substance than in grief for the death of her father. The glorious candlelight was replaced by modern portable lighting and an increasing number of modern idioms were introduced into the text. The nadir was the graveyard scene where the production abandoned Shakespeare’s text completely and the sole musician (Ed Gaughan) came forward to sympathise with the audience about the length of the play and explain how difficult it was to find comedian to play the gravedigger part and then invited the audience to take part in a singalong. After that the suspense and momentum of the play could never recover, and after a lacklustre dual scene between Hamlet and Laertes as a half-hearted sort of martial arts contest, the tragic ending fell flat.

The acting was of variable quality.  The outstanding performance of the night was John Lightbody as Polonius who cut an impressive, authoritative figure with long hair and beard.  There was a good pairing with Irfan Shamji’s Claudius, who was a rather weak King and so the power balance between those two characters was different to that normally portrayed.  The only problem with this representation was that it was a difficult to imagine this Claudius killing a fly, let alone his brother.

George Fouracres in the title role was dishevelled, and believably distraught but he broke all his speech into short phrases.  Not for him the debate about whether to pause in delivering Shakespeare verse at the end of the line, or punctuation marks, he could barely   manage a complete sentence without pausing.  It did produce speech, which was quite easy to understand but completely lost the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.

That said that there were some things about Sean Holmes production I did like.   The scenes ran together very easily, the cast had worked hard on the script to make it understandable and the use of the corridors behind the lower balcony to create noise and atmosphere during some of the scenes was effective.   Overall, however, the lack of a coherent theme, and the introduction of too many crowd-pleasing gimmicks destroyed the dramatic impact of the play.

Hamlet continues until the 9th April,

Reviewer: Paul Ackroyd

Reviewed: 3rd February 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★