DramaGreater Manchester FringeNorth WestReviewShakespeareShakespeare 400

Hamlet – Joshua Brooks, Manchester

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Anne Davies
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie

Truly Outrageous Productions first staged their adaptation of Hamlet at Manchester Central Library in April. Three months on, the show now plays as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe in the underground performance space provided at Joshua Brooks on Princess Street. Trimmed to barely 90 minutes, this half-weight Hamlet has been subjected to serious surgery.

Cutting Shakespeare down to Fringe size is inevitably a challenge, and performing the amputations without losing important body parts is even more so. Truly Outrageous gets the balance as right as anyone is ever likely to. No gravedigger in the gravedigger scene? Get over it.

The essential tragic narrative is preserved but some cinematic devices help to overcome the truncations of the script. Truly Outrageous is more generally associated with film and their editing of the text bears witness to this. Spoiler alert: we open with Horatio cradling the dying Hamlet and avowing to bear his tale to the world. Flashback to the young Prince attending his mother’s wedding to his dead father’s brother, and the ghost of Old Hamlet traipsing round the battlements of Elsinore.

Challenged to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet philosophises and prevaricates until the unintentional murder of the pompous courtier Polonius forces his ejection from Denmark, and a string of events that culminate in his return. The apparent suicide of his love-interest, Ophelia, and her brother Laertes’ thirst for revenge, result in a fencing tournament. During this, the various scheming participants fall foul of their own plots, and all the major participants head for body bags.

Anne Davies’ reduction of the original preserves most of the essentials, sometimes switching their positions, or trimming their extremities, to maintain the integrity of the plot, and the key points of the drama. Some nuances or flourishes are inevitably lost, but generally, she wields her scalpel with commendable precision.

The Joshua Brooks underground performance space is not very generous, with an audience on three sides, and the intrusion of noise from the noisy pub upstairs a constant backdrop. The cast does well to keep their own concentration and the focus of the audience. The postage-stamp playing area is a notable constraint in the fencing scene, where the actors have to contain the action within safe confines, while still making the swordplay convincing.

Blackouts with appropriate music create the brief divisions between scenes, Lighting is usually spot-on, literally, but sometimes got a bit confused. Not often enough to detract.

There is a trite condemnation that something may be “Hamlet without the Prince”. In this production, it sometimes feels that the result would have been an improvement. So much rests on the shoulders of the actor charged with carrying the cross of the tragic hero that any weakness can taint the whole production. Regrettably, Andy Avery’s Hamlet does not bear the fardel well. The best lines are casually delivered, lightly thrown away, and, with a few honourable exceptions, the soliloquies are squandered. The delivery is too low key to elicit the heightened dramatic tension in-built into the original. He also has a tendency to dad-dance around the stage when not nailed into position.

Other performances fail to compensate. Laertes is far too weak. Polonius is not sufficiently pompous, or doddery. Ophelia occasionally reaches the status of tragic bystander, but generally comes across as peevish and sulky, in a very modern way. Gertrude has lost most of her more interesting lines from the key scene with Hamlet in her chamber, so she always struggles to stake her place in the drama. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are well played as a comedy double act, but might have been worthwhile sacrifices.

Some honourable exceptions to this general criticism are worthy of note: Alex Herod, as Horatio, stays in character, and on message, for 100% of the time. Claudius, played by Franklyn Jacks, elicits every last ounce of emotion from the part, delivers his lines with clarity and conviction, and rarely lets the dramatic level drop in any scene he plays.

There are some inventive touches to this re-telling of the Bard of Avon’s most famous tragic tale, and Anne Davies deserves praise for her courage in adapting it for the Fringe, and for the space available. But the overall acting talent on display is not good enough to do it justice.

Reviewed on 29 July 2016 | Image: Contributed


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