Hamlet – The Rose Playhouse until 26th February

★★★

Review by Liz Dyer

There have been countless adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet over the years; my last experience of it was the much-hyped production at the Barbican last summer. That version, while it had much to recommend it, left me overall a bit underwhelmed – not to mention exhausted, after a first act that lasted almost two hours.

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The production of Hamlet that opened this week at the Rose Playhouse fits comfortably inside the Barbican’s first act with time to spare. At just 90 minutes in total, it’s the briefest Hamlet I’ve ever seen, which has the dual effect of making the play much more accessible and simultaneously losing a lot of the complexity that makes it such a masterpiece. All the political stuff’s gone (Fortinbras who?), as are the players, the gravediggers (Yorick still makes an appearance, but a lot earlier than usual) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

What we’re left with, then, is the relatively simple family drama of a son trying to avenge his father’s murder, with the focus very much on the hero’s personal turmoil. With limited time, Chris Clynes takes us on an impressive whistlestop tour of the young prince’s emotions: grieving, amused, pensive, playful, afraid, angry… and under it all is a childlike vulnerability and a taut energy that make for a fascinating combination. The scene in which he recreates the murder of his father with puppets is particularly haunting.

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Director Diana Vucane has made some interesting character choices: Dermot Dolan’s Polonius, for instance, looks the part of a comedian but is in reality a surprisingly sinister figure, while the madness of Ophelia (Suzanne Marie) is more ostentatious and sexualised than the quiet decline we’re used to. Nigel Fyfe as Claudius, meanwhile, has a quiet authority, but even when plotting Hamlet’s downfall, he never gets the opportunity to be properly villainous.

Nonetheless, this is still a powerfully atmospheric production, due largely to the unique setting of the Rose, which is simultaneously intimate and enormous, and allows the action to expand beyond the narrow confines of the stage area – a reminder that there is a world outside Elsinore after all.

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Hamlet at the Rose is a bold and uncompromising take on a popular and well-known play, and I didn’t dislike it. It’s certainly a lot more pacey than the original, and strips the story down to its essential ingredients without a lot of the talking. The problem is I kind of like the talking… because it’s what makes Hamlet, Hamlet. And while it’s not always necessary to go to the bum-numbing lengths of the Barbican, it would have been nice to explore a little more deeply the complexities of the characters – particularly the hero – and give the very capable cast a chance to really shine.

What’s there is enjoyable, original and nicely performed – I just wish there was a bit more of it.

Hamlet – The Rose Playhouse until 26th February

★★★

Review by Liz Dyer

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