Writer: William Shakespeare
Directors: Federay Holmes and Elle White
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
With a new artistic director at the helm who clearly believes in placing the actors at the heart of each production’s creative decisions, it is perhaps inevitable that Michelle Terry should cast herself in the title role of Hamlet.
Performed in repertory with As You Like It, the same gender-balanced cast of six men and six women take on acting duties in a play which doesn’t have the comedy’s playful attitude to gender to assist them. Terry’s Hamlet leads the way here, supplemented by further gender switching amongst the younger generation, from Bettrys Jones’ Laertes and Catrin Aaron’s Horatio to Shubnam Saraf’s Ophelia.
It is the latter role which ends up being the least effective. Saraf is a fine actor, but his early appearances as Ophelia feel underpowered and there is precious little chemistry with Terry’s Hamlet. Saraf works better against Richard Katz’s amusingly long-winded Polonius, and the character’s mental breakdown in the company of Claudius (James Garnon) gains a sense of physical threat that one may not have expected with a more delicate, traditionally feminine performance.
Hamlet’s duplicitous uncle Claudius, who cemented his role as King of Denmark by murdering Hamlet’s father and marrying his mother, is one of Shakespeare’s more talkative villains. Garnon never quite pulls off the charm needed to keep the audience onside through his frequent domination of the stage. Helen Schlesinger is much more impressive as Gertrude, torn between her love for her son, the memory of her despatched king and her duty to her new husband.
But more than any other play in the Shakespeare canon, it is upon the shoulders of the title character that so much of the play depends. We initially meet Hamlet as a grief-stricken youth decked out, like his best friend Horatio, in modern dress while the rest of the court are bedecked in the best Elizabethan finery that the Globe’s costume collection has to offer. When next we meet him, though, Terry is a mess of clownish outfits, ruffs repurposed as makeshift tutus.
This Hamlet, the costume suggests, is genuinely mad at this point. It’s not a particularly effective read of the character, and Terry never quite brings out the qualities in the prince that stop him from descending into self-absorbed monologuing. It is only when the character mellows, ruminating on his memories of deceased court jester Yorick, that we truly see a great performance from Terry.
As part of the actor-focussed new direction for The Globe’s theatrical company, directors Federay Holmes and Elle White (who take joint billing for both this and As You Like It) started rehearsals with a blank slate, with no prior preparation. This approach certainly worked for the gender-flipping comedy: here, a little more intent and a purpose of direction would, one feels, have benefitted both actors and audience.
Instead, we end up with a Hamlet, and a Hamlet, that does not quite know where to pitch itself. And that produces an evening that lacks the punch that Michelle Terry’s tenure could well have done with.
Runs in REP with As You Like It until 26th August | Image: Tristram Kenton