ReviewShakespeareShakespeare 400South West

Hamlet – Exeter Northcott

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Andrew Hilton
Reviewer: Lucy Corley

The poster for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Hamlet – a skull wearing a red nose and grinning – promises a quirky, unique reading of the play that the company, unfortunately, does not deliver.

This isn’t to say that the show is unsuccessful: it may not have been the production its audiences expected, but it is an interesting interpretation. Set against a porridge-grey set (designed by Max Johns) that bears closer resemblance to a prison yard than a court and with the house lights kept dimly on throughout, the staging is disarmingly static, as if the play hasn’t quite got started yet. When one character is speaking, the other performers stand looking on, reacting with facial expression but with no physical movement at all.

Perhaps this choice is to recreate the conditions in which the play was first performed – the production uses period costume and cuts few lines from the original – but in places, it feels like the cast are reading Hamlet rather than performing it.

That said, Alan Mahon’s Hamlet is intriguing: barely more than a teenager, he is driven by frustration with the adults he sees around him rather than grief for his father, as it is sometimes played. Gangly, tall and a little ungainly, Mahon (under Andrew Hilton’s direction) makes this a coming-of-age story that many will identify with: the young Hamlet is becoming part of the adult world and is disillusioned and unimpressed by what he finds there.

As he attempts to assert his identity as an adult and a man, he moves between naivety – his instructions to the troop of performers feel sweetly foolish and he often appears bemused by himself – and overconfidence. Through his awkward relationships with the well-groomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the frankness of his talks with fatherly tutor Horatio, Mahon successfully conveys how lonely it feels to be Hamlet. The duelling finale explodes with energy pent up during the occasionally painful stillness of earlier scenes, leaving behind an enormous sense of waste.

Callum McIntyre as Laertes is particularly strong: full of swagger, with a need to escape from his family while deeply affectionate towards them, he establishes a convincing annoying-older-brother relationship with Ophelia in the few lines they have together. His father Polonius (Ian Barritt) is an excellent clown, portraying the busybody with just the right amount of comedy, and quickly winning audience approval. Ophelia herself (Isabella Marshall) adds depth to her performance in an outburst of frustration following Hamlet’s rejection.

Julia Hills as Gertrude is convincingly wracked with guiltbut disappoints by gushing over Hamlet, showing moments of hysteria, and shifting from anxious to beaming at a moment’s notice. She enacts the inconstant ‘frail woman’ Hamlet sees in Gertrude, which undermines the realism of her character and makes it difficult to empathise with her. That said, it is a problematic role to play compared to the fairly one-sided, villainous King Claudius (played with authority by Paul Currier).

The whole production is performed in the deliberately non-immersive style often reserved for the play-within-a-play scene, which, in the same way, it works on King Claudius, makes the Exeter Northcott Theatre audience highly aware of its role as spectator. While falling short in terms of physical presence, the lines are delivered with expert pauses and intonation by all, making this production ideal for students encountering the play for the first time who want to get to grips with the mechanics of what is, ultimately, a pretty great story.

Runs until Saturday 18 June 2016 | Image: Marc Douet

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