Hamlet

William Shakespeare

Appropriately Right Productions

Park Theatre

From 22 August 2017 to 16 September 2017

Review by Claire Seymour

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We’re all obsessed with Hamlet it seems. As I set off for the Park Theatre’s three-hander adaptation, Tom Hiddleston was about to offer his version of the angst-ridden avenger at the Jerwood Vanbrugh theatre, just as Andrew Scott was treading the boards of the Harold Pinter Theatre.

By co-incidence I’ve been enjoying Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand in which the author explores the way the work of the Bard has assumed such significance in the politics and history of our own and foreign lands—a search for what he calls "the Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies: an understanding of Shakespeare’s universal appeal".

In fact, it wasn’t really Shakespeare’s Hamlet that was being staged at the Park: rather, I saw The Brandreth Saga. For, Giles Brandreth—former politician and quiz-show stalwart—is, he says, "a near-lifelong Hamlet obsessive", who as a boy saw Olivier’s black-and-white film of the play five times in a single week; he can still name every member of the cast, he tells us.

And, this production is the embodiment of an enduring pre-occupation, one which taps into the text's unresolved family dynamics, with all their Freudian resonances. Brandreth Snr plays the "father-figures"—Claudius, Polonius, the Ghost and the Player King—while his real-life son, Benet, is Hamlet. There’s plentiful potential for the "mother-fixation" refrain to rumble too, as Brandreth Jnr’s wife, American actress Kosha Engler, plays Gertrude and Ophelia (oh, and Horatio and Rosencrantz).

So, a wife plays a mother/beloved, and a daughter-in-law plays a wife. I’m not sure if Brandreth is being ironic when he tells us that the family have "been busy reading Freud and Jung, as well as Bowlby on Attachment and Loss", with Dissociative Identity Disorder tossed into the kitchen table chit-chat too.

Script editor Imogen Bond has done a good job in reducing the play to ninety minutes and the production’s not without its wry moments. “Methinks I see my father”, mutters Hamlet, swiftly followed by “…ah, I see my uncle,” as the Ghost morphs into Claudius. If you know the play well, the action is made more or less clear, and there are some neat touches. A radio report brings news of the King’s death at the start; the play-within-a-play has even more "layers" than usual, with Brandreth Jnr proving a good mimic.

But there’s plenty of scope for confusion. Claudius, praying at the kitchen table, seems to be stabbed by Hamlet; one needs to know the text to appreciate that we’ve time-travelled a scene or two and it’s actually the "un-ensconced" Polonius who has taken the hit. Then, when the dead Polonius lifts his head from the table to become the "undead" Claudius, one wonders just how many Ghosts there are in this production. Directors Simon Evans and David Aula keep the dramatic pace and pitch high, but sometimes there is barely time to ask oneself who’s who, let alone to reflect on existential conundrums.

The ending is particularly unsatisfying as Bond, not surprisingly, simply can’t convey the complexity and diversity of the final scenes. Designer Polly Sullivan’s suburban-kitchen set—all pine cabinets, mod cons and artfully draped foliage suggesting the green lawns beyond the French windows—is stylish and effective. The microwave has its own surprise for us at the close: "Alas, poor Yorick!" indeed. But, the characters are all bound to the breakfast table, and this is limiting when the action and ideas range far and wide.

There’s no real "danger" or "violence", just an angry "game" with a kitchen knife. And there’s no sense of the play’s political dimensions: no councillors, courtiers, soldiers, sailors, grave-diggers. There’s no Fortingbras, no Laertes. The latter is reduced to a symptom of Ophelia’s madness, when in her crazed mutterings she imagines that she is her brother. Another fist-load of Freud.

Engler is the most effective of the three cast/family members in accomplishing her multiple metamorphoses, modulating her voice and facial gesture skilfully and convincingly as she switches between a calm and calculating Gertrude, a fey intense Ophelia, an urgent Horatio. Brandreth Snr manages to distinguish between Claudius and Polonius.

The real weak link in the domestic chain is Hamlet himself. Brandreth Junior is a barrister and also a rhetoric coach at the RSC. On weekends, he moonlights as a novelist, writing—who’d have guessed—"swash-buckling accounts of Shakespeare’s adventures in Italy in the 1590s".

He enunciates the text well. But it’s fitting that our first image of this Hamlet is of a man with his head buried in a book, seated at the table as we enter for, essentially, Brandreth reads his lines rather than feeling and living the text. “To be or not to be” is recited, rapidly, from a philosophical treatise which is then dashed petulantly to the floor—there’s quite a lot of book, and vodka shot, throwing in this production.

To indulge in a slight digression… Wilson-Lee’s opening anecdote describes a "memory contest" in which his surprised, somewhat reluctant younger student-self and a man seated by the roadside traded iambic pentameters during a sweltering Luxor summer afternoon. He notes that while his travelogue and a cultural history of "Swahililand" explores the universal veneration of Shakespeare, any attempt to refute the subjectivity of his account—he was brought up in East Africa—would be dishonest.

The Brandreths could do with a dose of this wisdom and self-awareness. I imagine the family, gathered eagerly like Shakespeare’s mechanicals, dishing out the parts… only they’d all have Nick Bottom’s over-enthusiastic self-absorption, pleas tumbling thick and fast, “Let me play Polonius too!” They needed a Peter Quince to tell them what part they “are set down for” and “must needs play”, though, to coin Bottom’s malapropism they certainly did rehearse “most obscenely and courageously”.