Hamlet – Milton Keynes Theatre

Libretto: Matthew Jocelyn 

Music: Brett Dean

Director: Neil Armfield

Reviewer: Maggie Constable

The disturbed, nay tormented, Hamlet, eponymous hero of Glyndebourne’s acclaimed opera, seeks revenge for his beloved father’s death and so begins one of the most infamous Shakespearean tragedies of all time at Milton Keynes Theatre tonight. It is worse still when poor, beleaguered Hamlet discovers the culprit of the King of Denmark’s death, viz Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius no less, has also ‘taken’ the King’s wife, Gertrude! A powerful visitation of the story, composed in operatic form by Brett Dean, follows to enthral, even torment, its audience but certainly to engage it completely. Themes of death, suicide, insanity and love naturally come up; why would they not?! All this drama lends itself beautifully to an operatic rendition, which is doubtless why Dean seized upon this particular tragedy.

And so the opera opens in the Danish castle where banquet tables are set out and Hamlet, initially static with hands covering his eyes, begins to writhe in anguish. And here is the quintessence of the play, a word which is oft-repeated. The stage is set, as they say. And what a set Ralph Meyers has created … with a simple backdrop of huge, grey doors and windows we almost have a blank canvas against which the muted tones of the lovely costumes, from Alice Babidge are reflected and upon which a dazzling quasi-light show can work. The set is speedily and easily transformed at various points with Jon Clark’s superb use of lighting as a remarkable and powerful aide in the creation of the total ambiance of this piece. Shadows and darkness are similarly effective and evocative, working in tandem with the incredible music, which is at times dissonant and at others so poignantly apt. Dean shows in his composition that he has understood the nuances of each character as much as he has the overall themes of the play. The choreography of movement is stunning, particularly at moments when the ‘mad’ Hamlet is weaving himself deftly around the stage or when Horatio (beautifully and soulfully performed by Gavan Ring) creeps silently and tortoise-like in a path which contours the central action of Hamlet’s interaction with his chalk-dusted, ghostly father.

David Butt Philip, in the title rôle, with his resonant tenor voice, does a wonderful job and is a believable Hamlet in many ways but whether the director’s choice or not, the madness is portrayed in a  more fluffy and almost humorous way rather than the audience seeing the painful and gnawing anguish often associated with the Hamlet rôle.

Jennifer France, portraying the wonderful Ophelia rôle, has an amazing voice which can reach heights one does not expect, and she really comes into her own in the second act as the maddened and betrayed young woman who meets her maker in the murky waters.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Robert, as the threatening, dark, and wily Polonius, is nothing short of perfect, more so in his facial expressions and body language which convey his Machiavellian personality.

William Dazeley brings us the arch-villain, Claudius, who, in the first act at least, is somewhat two-dimensional. However, Dazeley truly brings us the evil and weak Claudius in Act Two, especially in the final scenes in which he is hoisted by his own petard! Brian Bannatyne-Scott is excellent in the three rôles he plays. His bass voice is dramatic, powerful and oh so rich, spot on for each of the three rôles. He certainly has the haunting and charismatic stage presence as Hamlet’s father, he who met his untimely death. Louise Winter brings us Queen Gertrude and what a cleverly portrayed conniving and smiling assassin she makes.

For light relief, James Hall and Rupert Enticknap, as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz respectively, are reminiscent of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in Alice In Wonderland, but what marvellous comic timing and expression of face and movement. They add much-needed humour to the play and both actors do so with real panache and style.

Neil Armfield’s sharply-directed modern-dress production is clever and utterly effective, allowing its audience not to be distracted by flouncy and overly-ornate costumes nor by overly-dramatic movements, as can sometimes be the case with operas.

The gory ending is aptly dramatic and calamitous but is much more Tarantino-awful than the poignantly heart-wrenching conclusions one generally sees in Hamlet productions of any type, even if the way in which Horatio holds onto his much-loved Hamlet is compellingly moving.

This is a thoroughly engaging and challenging but finally very rewarding piece which leaves its audience on its feet for many more than the usual bows. Not to be missed.

Reviewed on 24 November 2017 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith

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