Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: David Thacker
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Brevity may be the soul of wit but brevity was certainly not on William Shakespeare’s agenda when he wrote the Danish classic. It is easy not to appreciate, when seeing a production every few years, the mammoth task a director, lead actor and whole company undertake when committing to stage the mind of the troubled Danish Prince.
In its fiftieth year, The Octagon Theatre has an epic timespan and it seems fitting that Hamlet has been chosen as part of its golden anniversary season. Former artistic director of the theatre, David Thacker, presents what he describes in his programme notes as a ‘family play’ within a political context. This is not an abridged version, nor is it one that wants to apologise for the fact that it is The Bard’s longest play. Every new thought is pounced upon, every nuance pondered and every spellbinding poetic image allowed to land. This is Shakespeare for the puritan.
This chiseled accuracy is mirrored in James Cotterill’s design. Straight lines dominate as a red square carpet hosts most of the intrigue, and the large central wooden doors and soldier’s uniforms set this production in a fictitious world behind the iron curtain in the previous Soviet Bloc. King Claudius’ grey business-like suit and the removal of all things regal brings this drama into a familiar political mise en scene as opposed to the monarchical. The result is a view of Claudius as a dictator figure trying to cling to power rather than the newly crowned King of Denmark. And with his large gold-framed portrait in regimental regalia hanging over the proceedings one’s mind easily conjures up state news images of Russia or North Korea. Adrian Johnston’s subtle underscore in scene shifts and at various moments of the text give this production more than a little feel of one of the many Scandinavian television dramas over the last decade.
In the lead, David Ricardo-Pearce excels. Grief, guilt, anger, revenge, lunacy and feigned lunacy steer any actor through rough seas and Ricardo-Pearce and Thacker explore many facets of such a complex character without ever being prescriptive. Madness or a desire driven by revenge is a grey area that is not answered by Shakespeare and, intelligently, not answered in this production either. Ricardo-Pearce’s soliloquies are quite often physically punctuated by a change of direction with every new thought shift and, although some of his direct address to the front row seem questionable at the time, it becomes justified in the intimate theatre when, with some of his final words, he acknowledges their part to play.
The cast is strong throughout with notable performances from Brian Protheroe as a steadfast and sure Claudius, who breaks down in front of an altar when he tries to pray, and Eric Potts as Polonius, who reinvents with wit, so many of Shakespeare’s cultural references that liberally litter the text. As Ophelia Jessica Baglow descends into madness with wails and howls but is balanced delicately with her offerings of flowers from the clumps of earth she carries around swaddled in a sheet like a newborn babe. There is very little doubling as an impressive cast of fourteen take the stage.
With both halves at a seventy-five minute playing time, this is a production of Hamlet to be indulged in. The first half may be criticised for being rather static as the political turmoil begins to unfold around tables and chairs but it is much to the production’s credit that this hard work is rewarded in the second half as the power in the Danish state comes crashing down.
Runs until 10th March 2018 | Image: Rochard Davenport