Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Amy Leach
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
The play is the thing in Amy Leach’s solid production of Hamlet, as Leeds Playhouse’s ensemble season continues in their pop-up space while the theatre continues redevelopment. This radically cut-down, easily digestible version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece places story first and foremost and injects a pace that can very often be the death knell of a full production.
The intimate space of Leeds Playhouse’s temporary home immediately places us as uncomfortable eyewitnesses to King Hamlet’s funeral. Hayley Grindle’s design almost has the whole piece played out on top of the shrine of the murdered King. Flowers and candles strewn at audience level become a constant reminder that this is a play that (for Hamlet as well as us) steps all too uncomfortably on the grave of a dead man. And with the actors treading a vaulted stage above, reminiscent of a memorial stone perhaps, there is nothing subtle in the metaphor.
With a cast of nine professional actors (supported by a community cast of soldiers and players), Leach’s production is bare-bones storytelling with a running time of just over two and a half hours including interval. There is much to be admired in brevity being the soul of this production. Leach’s adaptation also employs several non-verbal scenes perhaps in order to help the storytelling to an audience unfamiliar with the play. It isn’t often you see Hamlet receive news of the death of the King at the start of the play, or indeed Ophelia’s moments before drowning herself. A modern approach, perhaps, to give breath between the dense wordiness.
The conscious choice of a female Hamlet, despite being nothing new, is impossible to ignore in terms of the changes and connotations it makes to the text. A female Horatio and Polonius also enforces a change of pronoun from him to her and from father to mother. And when Hamlet’s same-sex relationship with Ophelia is described by Polonius as “fashion,” the word jumps straight off the stage. That said, Leach’s production stops there in terms of forcing a subtext. As a recent newspaper article succinctly stated: “female is a gender and not a genre”. This certainly seems to be the mantra of Leach’s production.
Tessa Parr as Hamlet is excellent. Dressed initially in a University of Wittenberg hoodie her change into a black mourning dress whilst other characters don a flash of colour become a portent into her descent into revenge and madness. Her soliloquies are delivered with straight unfussiness, a style that permeates the whole production, and her moment of epiphany at hatching the plan to reveal Claudius’ guilt is thrilling to watch set against a stylised, slow-motion piece from the players. Parr is particularly good later in the play with her devil may care attitude comes to the fore that tests an actor’s comic potential also. As Claudius Joe Alessi has an air of the seedy uncle but perhaps not quite the villain and Jo Mousley’s Gertrude seems a little young for the casting. Susan Twist’s Polonius, dressed in a politician’s two-piece power suit, is fierce and comical. Hot-headed Laertes (Dan Parr) is juxtaposed with sister Ophelia (Simona Bitmate) who, timid and bookish, becomes fragility encapsulated. Robert Pickavance, gliding across the stage in full army fatigue as the ghost of King Hamlet, has a wonderful comic cameo reappearance as the gravedigger.
The intimate space of Leeds Playhouse’s pop-up theatre very much lets us into this familial revenge tragedy. Leach’s adaptation gets to the very core of the story and ditches anything extraneous (even Guildenstern whose purpose is condensed into Rosencrantz alone). It is a conscious act that, to the Shakespearean puritans may be as heinous as Claudius’ fratricide, but is intended, and succeeds, in clearly and boldly telling the Danish tale.
Runs until 30th March 2019 | Image: David Lindsay