Hamlet – St Paul’s Churchyard, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Daniel Winder

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

A promenade Hamlet is an interesting proposition for a tightly wound play that takes place almost entirely within the walls of a palace. Iris Theatre’s big summer production strives for contemporary relevance in Shakespeare’s most fascinating work, opening out the action into the beautiful floral garden of St Paul’s Churchyard in Covent Garden and casting a transgender actor in the leading role. But although Daniel Winder’s approach creates greater fluidity, the great psychological power of Shakespeare’s play is lost in the shrubbery.

The genius of Hamlet as a character and as a play lies in its capacity for infinite variety; whether you like your Hamlet’s genuinely mad, comic, grief-stricken or angry the adaptability of Shakespeare’s text supports any interpretation. Winder has relocated the action to England under the dictatorial regime of King Claudius where rooms in the Palace are covertly watched on CCTV and public broadcasts are made every morning showing the happy royal couple providing “a strong and stable nation” relayed on video screens around the churchyard as the audience relocates.

And there are some tantalisingly good ideas in this production including an examination of gender in which Horatio refers to Hamlet as “my Lady” whereas everyone else uses the pronoun “he”. Even more exciting is the implication of a romantic connection between Hamlet and his friend as they stroke each other’s faces like lovers while speaking intimately – at last a conceivable reason why Hamlet abandons Ophelia. Frustratingly neither of these ideas lasts beyond the first few scenes and the opportunity to explore a different aspect of the text melts away.

The focus in this production shifts considerably as well spending less time on Hamlet’s interior troubles to give lots of time to the Players – here recast as The Tragedians a masked group of grotesques, spoken word poets and dance musicians – who arrive far earlier than usual but use a pre-recorded video sequence filmed at the seaside brilliantly unfolding the tragedy of Gonzago. Helga Fannon’s video design is a positive edition as Hamlet later sends video messages to Horatio detailing his quick work with the Pirates and encounter with Fortinbras.

As ever with these summer promenades the management of the audience is very well-done, hastily taking the crowd to four different locations but ultimately the concept of promenade is deleterious to the psychological development of the play, creating a disjointed feel in the overall production. A set number of scenes are allocated to each place but there’s little opportunity to really build the purpose of each character or develop the tension that leads to the play’s tragic conclusion.

Editing choices are part of the reason for this with huge amounts of text jettisoned including much of the word play in the scenes with the Gravedigger and Polonius – making the comment that the latter was a “prattling knave” rather redundant – and stripping the soliloquies of their exploratory purpose. The result is to make the key characters feel rather purposeless, there’s no real sense of who they are, or of Hamlet and Claudius particularly working through their thoughts in their major speeches.

Jenet Le Lacheur has a strong feel for Shakespeare’s rhythms, making the lines feel like natural speech while taking an angrier perspective on the character. Le Lacheur is a furious Hamlet in fact, irritable rather than despairing and determined to avenge the death of Old Hamlet, showing a particular command in the later scenes after returning from exile. A little more introspection would, however, give the performance more nuance particularly in the contemplation of death that so dominates Hamlet’s mind in the first half of the play, while a clearer sense of what the audience should take from the interaction with Horatio would help to explain Hamlet’s own behaviour.

Vinta Morgan is a smooth, political Claudius who tends to speak very quickly and shouts much of his confessional speech. Like Clare Bloomer’s Gertrude there is no clear point of view on these characters, the extent of their complicity in Old Hamlet’s death and how poisonous they are as a couple. Paula James as a female Polonius becomes a stronger presence with a much-reduced part, while Jenny Horsthuis’ Ophelia joins the other female characters in being dressed by Madeline Berry in hooded capes – a hint at a Handmaid’s Tale-like world of female restriction that is never explained or really makes sense given Polonius’ senior advisory position.

Running at two hours and forty-five minutes this is still a pretty long Hamlet despite the reduction of the text, and the pacing of Windler’s production is a little variable, lingering too long in some areas while completing the final dramatic scene in a rather quick 10-minutes. Revenge tragedy, thriller or political commentary, Hamlet can be many things and in a crowded marketplace it pays to be inventive, yet some of the best ideas in this promenade performance are too briefly explored bringing what should be a fast-moving play to a stand-still.

Runs until:  27 July 2019 | Image: Contributed

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