Pros: Striking performances raise the production above and beyond the usual Shakespeare fare.
Cons: Actors shifting tables around on stage was occasionally distracting.
Staging any play in the round at The Cockpit is a challenge, especially where Hamlet is concerned. However, the English Repertory Theatre has pulled off a highly creditable, workmanlike production. The first task was to slim down the running time of Shakespeare’s longest play, which ordinarily checks in at a very long four hours. They solved this problem with relative ease, presenting a highly palatable one hour forty minutes running time with a twenty-minute interval. A story that usually sprawls into complexity is presented in a much simpler format. This time the play was staged in a classroom; a smart move, as our first experience of Shakespeare is almost always at school. Here, Horatio teaches modern history to four privileged teenagers in Elsinore; Laertes, his sister Ophelia, Hamlet himself and his oily friend Rosencrantz. Poor Hamlet, late for class again, his Dad’s been murdered by his uncle and his Mum’s only gone and married him; things are definitely getting out of hand! Other major players in the piece enter in a variety of guises; a bespectacled Polonius looks every inch the headmaster; Claudius in a black business suit has the air of a bank manager; and Gertrude is distinctly flirtatious as Hamlet’s mother.
There are some pleasing performances from a stellar cast; the petite Rachel Waring is excellent in the title role with perfect diction and crystal clear delivery; Jon House as Claudius and Alexander Neal as Laertes easily hold the attention; and Nina Bright has a beguiling presence as Ophelia. With such basic staging, the pressure is solely on the actors to make the story work – and they did exactly that.
The production does however assume that we have an existing knowledge of Hamlet; in shortening the running time, around a dozen characters have been dropped from the story including the Ghost of Hamlet’s father; so its origins might be lost on those who have never previously seen the play. You may well ask whether it really matters, as the basis for the story is derived from 13th Century legend. But context is important in a story like Hamlet, and a more detailed summary in the programme would have been useful. That said, it was refreshing to watch the play in a minimalist setting; and from the front row we could see actors working from close quarters. In comparison to the full unabridged version, it was a joy to behold a cuddlier, user friendly Hamlet, but give yourself an online refresher before you go and see this, otherwise you might get lost.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Gavin Davis
Producer: Guy Hutchings/English Repertory Theatre
Box Office: 020 7258 2925
Booking link: http://tickets.thecockpit.org.uk/Sales/Shows/Hamlet#book
Booking until: 15 March 2015.