Pros: I loved the use of rhythm and blues tunes to accompany the most sorrowful moments of the play.
Cons: A performance in the round means that, sometimes, the only thing you’ll see is the actor’s back. Sadly, this happened to me during the much awaited “To be, or not to be”.
It always gives me great pleasure to turn up to a small theatre, on any random mid-week day, and find it almost full. It proves that London is a culturally buzzing city, where going to the theatre is a widespread activity, and independent venues are as popular as the mainstream West End ones.
The version of Hamlet I went to see was played in the middle of the auditorium, with raked seats all around, against the four walls. Thanks to this layout, the action acquired three-dimensionality but, unfortunately, also had the disadvantage that there was always a part of the audience seated behind the actors at any one time. Sadly, my turn of exclusion arrived when Hamlet was enunciating his quintessentially introspective monologue “To be, or not to be”, and I had to content myself with watching his back.
Scenery was completely absent, but the actors initially took three platforms to centre stage which then got scrambled, adjusted and continuously moved throughout the performance. Thanks to their versatility there was no need for other frills, and all the attention could focus on the gorgeously flowing words and their enactment.
Neither was I distracted by the richness of the costumes, as the characters’ appearance was very low key. Mostly wearing denim, their trousers were cropped below the knee, to simulate the breeches, while colourful tights substituted the heavy Elizabethan stockings. The king’s helm was ditched in favour of a fencing mask and a green trench coat protected his royal ghost, instead of the usual armour.
This isn’t Shakespeare’s masterpiece as you might know it, neither in its staging nor in its script. Production company Ilissos, together with director Charles Ward, have opted for what is believed to be one of the first printed versions of Hamlet, published in 1603 and called “First Quarto”. The inscription on its cover suggests that this particular text was performed in London, Cambridge and Oxford – although the director reckons that this piece of information should be taken with a pinch of salt. Observing its reduced and simplified rendition, Ward concludes that this could have been the variant intended for the stage, not to be confused with the longer one, probably divulged for reading purposes.
The plot is familiar, despite the discrepancies in some of the names. One night, Hamlet (Nicholas Limm) meets the ghost of his father (Alex Scrivens) who reveals that the new king (also played by Alex Scrivens), Hamlet’s uncle, has killed him in order to marry his mother (Pauline Munro) and assume the throne of Denmark. Tormented by his sorrow, Hamlet displays unusual behaviour and everyone starts thinking he’s crazy. Is that true? Is he crazy or, instead, is he the only man brave enough to speak the truth and avenge his father? Meanwhile, Ophelia (Maryam Grace), perturbed by the sudden change of her beloved Hamlet, goes by the river to gather flowers for a chaplet and drowns herself, setting off a chain of deaths.
Nicholas Limm was a divine Hamlet. He interpreted the character’s folly with a spontaneity and credibility that allowed me to immerse myself completely in his agony. Maryam Grace as Ophelia was fresh and passionate. She skilfully accompanied her own funeral with a melancholic rhythm and blues chanting, which made me feel all her misery. The other characters were sufficiently consistent but none of them had a particular spark. Limm’s execution was so good that he stole the show, not leaving space for anyone else.
Poised between tradition and modernity, this unique version of a timeless drama is a treat for connoisseurs and an easier approach for neophytes of this extraordinarily intense tragedy.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Charles Ward
Producer: Ilissos Theatre
Booking Until: 30 April 2016
Box Office: 020 7258 2925
Booking Link: http://tickets.thecockpit.org.uk/Sales/Shows/Hamlet#book