I might as well admit it, I am not a big fan of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies. Shock, horror, local theatre oik confesses his ignorance. Othello ain’t bad, mainly because of the scheming Iago, and Macbeth is mercifully short. But they don’t grab me like the history plays or the best comedies and they don’t grip like Mr Chekhov and Mr Ibsen. My loss some would say, but at fourteen I was introduced to Julius Caesar and Osborne’s Jimmy Porter and it was an uneven contest. The first bored, the second mesmerised. Must be my council estate upbringing. So I went along to the Rep’s Hamlet with some trepidation. Do it all and you sit through four hours of a warring royal family in which most of the main characters die. Bit like And Then There Were None for cerebrals. Hamlet is tortured by the ghost of his father and his hatred for his usurper, Uncle Claudius, and his introspective character destroys both himself and practically everyone else. Miserable bugger, I always thought. In defence, I have seen a number of Hamlet productions and all directors put their own particular slant on it. It’s a broad canvas, rich in complex relationships, and almost cries out for interpretations. I did draw the line, many years ago, at going to see a local production that put them all in a spaceship. Probably my loss. Just did not fancy seeing Ophelia go mad in a fetching silky soft spacesuit. I have no imagination.
Annalise Carter-Brown does. She directed this one and whilst it would be misleading to say that she allowed her imagination to run riot, it was pretty clear from the start she kept only a loose rein. Lots of the peripheral characters were in frocks, mercifully played as women, and a couple of the main ones were given a surprising slant. None more so than Polonius in the guise of a lecherous Cardinal. I always thought he was a nice man. This production proved, here and elsewhere, that actions spoke much louder than words. Even Shakespeare’s. Words were sometimes lost in hasty diction from the weaker actors but bawdy action, I clearly have a dirty mind, was pleasingly wrapped in sumptuous music of the Mozart variety and simple and effective staging. Miss Carter-Brown’s picture was crystal clear. This Hamlet had a subtle love for the purity and innocence of his loyal Horatio, don’t worry she was beautifully feminine, but seemed to loathe everyone else. Especially himself. Don’t know if it was intended but that is how this particular slant on the troubled Prince came over.
Peter Carter-Brown did a superb job as that brooding Prince. His diction was clear and concise and his moods shifted in pleasing quicksilver fashion. Oh all right, he was a moody and whining bugger you wanted to slap at times but he delivered everything with astonishing ease. I particularly liked his feigned madness; the pure physicality of his acting there was joyously inventive. Gripping a tiny book, Henry V so I was told, this actor showed that he truly understood the complexities of his character. A marathon part with never a slip. Not for the first time I sat in the audience saying I couldn’t do that. Equally I couldn’t have done Stephanie Overington’s portrayal of Horatio. Surrounded by the big players this is usually a secondary part. Not here. The feminine slant came to the fore in spades and Miss Overington, dressed in innocent white, captivated whenever she was on stage. So did Alistair Brown’s quirky interpretation of Polonius. This Machiavellian character, dressed in cardinal red, oozed lechery. The dirty mind referred to above was convinced that his servant Reynaldo, nice performance from Jenny Monaghan, was considering fellatio at one point. I really should get out more. Elsewhere there were excellent performances from Katy Elliott’s Guildenstern, Jo Collett’s Player Queen and Kim Albone’s Ophelia. The latter certainly put a large dollop of lust into her madness. And we got a massive chunk of theatricality from the ghostly appearance of Hamlet’s father. The wavering pictures of Phil Baker’s face, coupled with his beautiful diction, was mesmerising. The overall presentation was a mixed bag but it came up trumps here. And the redoubtable Mr Baker was probably at home supping a whisky. Great life, acting.
Overall though this Hamlet only fleetingly tweaked the senses. Yes we had an excellent lead, pretty essential, and that magnificent music to cloak the scenes. But some major characters came up a bit short. So the family drama only intermittently gripped. Dave Corbett’s King Claudius lacked authority, Marc Rolfe’s Laertes was a bit bland and rushed, and even the ever reliable Jenna Ryder-Oliver’s Queen Gertrude never totally stamped her personality on the production. She delivered her lines well, she is too good an actress not to, but I reckon she was a bit fazed by all those other women on stage. Gertrude usually reigns supreme in the feminine stakes. Here she had unexpected competition from a plethora of frocks. Only a theory of course. But what do you expect from a man who first fell in love with theatre when, in Look Back in Anger, he watched in awe at a woman ironing while a man ranted. Know the text of that one well. Watching Annalise Carter-Brown’s interesting Hamlet I reckon I should brush up again on this one. Shan’t bother. The only Wayward and Sweet Princes I still read about are those that grace Kempton and Haydock Park. Roy Hall