ETG 2016: Hamlet

Tue 17th January 2017

reviews

Clare Cavenagh

at 13:57 on 18th Jan 2017

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The European Theatre Group's production of Hamlet, which has been taken around Europe over the vacation and now arrives back in Cambridge is a highly enjoyable, if slightly unexpected, production. There aren't very many plays where a new production has more varied audience expectations or a greater degree of familiarity with the text, so straying from the beaten path was a very courageous decision, but one which, on the whole, paid off.

The opening of the play brought two surprises: that the set depicted not the Danish court, but a ship at sea, and that everything began with an opening song and dance number (composed, as all the music in the show, by Toby Marlow). The seafaring setting, while not distracting or disruptive at all, didn't appear to add too much to the interpretation - everything took place as on land - but the design was interesting as well as being economical enough to have been transported around during the tour, and gave the cast a mobile arras to hide behind, and a crow's nest to climb.

The music, which was frequent, and featured lyrics sung by the cast was at first a little destabilising - nobody was expecting to walk into Hamlet! The Musical. Once the audience was in the swing of it however, the songs were often effective. Ophelia's quiet and folksy lament as she began her descent into madness was haunting, Gertrude's mandolin-accompanied musings on her love life were intriguing, and a wonderful duet by the Gravedigger and his assistant (Colin Rothwell and Ashleigh Weir) was delightful and hilarious. It was a very audacious move to write songs to accompany Hamlet of all plays, and one which was carried off with style.

The one minor problem with this production was that it often felt as though more could have been done with the words of the play, rich and recognisable as they are. Overall, the dialogue ran a little quickly, everyone speaking quite fast in a way which occasionally slightly compromised understanding. Had the dialogue been slowed down a notch, the words being said might have hit a little harder. There was also the odd moment when a character could have made a lot more of their lines too. This was particularly apparent in Claudius' (Tim Atkin) prayer monologue. The monologue was delivered at the front of the stage in an even tone of voice with very little gesture. Beautifully spoken as it was, Claudius seemed to say "o my offence is rank, it stinks to heaven" in roughly the same tone of voice he might employ to say "Gertrude my dear, would you pass the marmalade?"

This was far from universal though, and many of the performances were fantastic. Colin Rothwell was excellent in all of his roles, but was particularly scene-stealing as Polonius, perfectly capturing the man's unstoppable verbal leakage, and adding a brilliant joke to the reading of Hamlet's love-letters to Ophelia. Bethan Davidson was wonderful as Gertrude, portraying Hamlet's mother as youthful, flirtatious, and ultimately very fragile in the face of her son's anger. In contrast, Matilda Wickham was a more robust Ophelia than usual. In her opening interactions with Laertes, she was fun and vivacious, in her increasingly fraught interactions with Hamlet, she was defiant and angry rather than wounded, and in her madness, she was otherworldly rather than pathetic.

The man at the centre of it all, Sam Knights as Hamlet, pulled of his incredibly challenging role with aplomb. Knights managed to harness his comic skill to switch between being funny and being frightening (or, unnervingly, being both at the same time) with greater and greater frequency as the show went on. His Hamlet was frenetic and unstable, irreverent and tragic.

It's very ambitious to take a play such as Hamlet and to make many changes and additions to it. Although the addition of song and dance numbers and a little gender-bending might at first be destabilising for Hamlet-Geeks, this production is highly enjoyable and very successful.

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