Writer: William Shakespeare
Director : Andrew Hilton
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Bristol’s Tobacco Factory company bring Shakespeare’s Scandi Noir play to Salford’s Lowry Theatre, in repertory with the lesser known comedy All’s Well That Ends Well. While the Tobacco factory may have pedigree of their own, the echoes of applause seem barely to have died away from Maxine Peake’s daring performance as the Prince of Denmark at the nearby Royal Exchange. But agreeing with Dogberry that “Comparisons are odorous”, Andrew Hilton’s first attempt at directing Hamlet must be judged on its own merits.
The first of these is the courage to transform the Lowry’s Quays Theatre stage into theatre-in-the-round. This creates a sense of intimacy and involvement for those close to the action, but not all scenes suit this staging. The gravedigger scene suffered from the exposure of the grave to 25% of the audience; like seeing the open back of the Punch and Judy tent. (The second gravedigger is a victim of cutbacks at the Elsinore Parks and Cemeteries Department.)
Music was used sparingly but effectively to introduce scenes, or to add a touch of eeriness to the very corporeal presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Only in the final scene was it intrusive, when martial music overrides “The rest is silence”. Sadly not.
Lighting effects were generally kept simple, although the use of side spots to illuminate the ghost made him considerably less ghostly. A couple of scenes were skillfully faded to allow for fast intercutting of the action, and this was very effective. The play also boasts one of the best sword fights in recent years. The lack of dialogue in the fight scene often means that the cut and thrust of the weaponry is cursory. Not here; and John Sandeman is to be congratulated for his thrilling choreography of the swordplay.
Period costumes, less common these days, brought a traditional touch to the performance, and these were almost always fitting to the character and the scene. The intimacy of Hamlet’s berating of his mother in her chamber might have been more pronounced had Gertrude been allowed to substitute her plush velvet and tiara for a comfy dressing gown. Hamlet, when apparently most distracted, might also have been spared the one bare leg and one black stocking. Not a good look.
There were some very good performances. Isabella Marshall ia an affecting Ophelia; a butterfly crushed by the forces of her family and the court, and unable to comprehend the apparent cruelty of the prince. Julia Hills plays Gertrude to perfection, caught between the calls on her affection from two husbands (one of them deceased) and a half-hinged son. Ian Barritt’s Polonius avoids officiousness, but also eschews the bumbling nature of the character which sometimes brings welcome comic relief to the drama. Paul Currier, as Claudius, brings a troubled dignity and stateliness to the role which brought fresh nuance to the pantomime villain. A genuinely regal performance.
Carrying Hamlet’s cross is no easy task, and there may be good reason why some of the finest actors wait until they are almost past their sell-by date to take on the role. The part calls for such a range of expression, such depth of emotional and psychological sonar, that youth is actually a disadvantage. And so it proved to be for Alan Mahon. Some aspects of his Hamlet were convincing, particularly when playing the madcap, poking fun at the pretensions of the court, the courtiers, his erstwhile friends. But when intensity was required, he comes up short. Ranting is not the same as passion.
A play without an audience is one hand clapping. And yet this performance takes too much notice of the customers. Asides are given directly to the front stalls; Soliloquys are not introspection, but one-sided conversations with the groundlings. This demolition of the safety barrier between actor and spectator did not increase the engagement, it eradicated the mystique.
Hamlet is a long play. It is difficult to shoehorn it into a three-hour slot (including interval) without some compromise. The Tobacco Factory seem to have decided to keep as much of the text as possible, but to keep the pace of delivery relentless. Polonius cannot be doddery; Hamlet cannot be reflective; scenes cannot be allowed to sink in; we all know the lines so the actors do not have to linger over them. Perhaps. But the casualty is the subtlety and poise that makes this one of the greatest in the Shakespeare canon.
Runs until Saturday 11 June 2016 | Image:Mark Douet