William Shakespeare
Guildford Shakespeare Company production in association with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Holy Trinity Church, Guildford High Street

Hamlet production photo

Partners Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran formed the Guildford Shakespeare Company in 2006 with the aim of providing accessible theatre for everyone, but in non-theatrical locations mainly open air, although last year for the first time they came indoors with Romeo and Juliet.

Since then they have gone from strength to strength, gaining experience and increasing in confidence and ambition while attracting the attention and respect of theatre lovers and converts alike. On this, their fifth ‘birthday’, they have begun their season with a stunning production of Hamlet, once again in the atmospheric confines of Holy Trinity Church, and in my opinion the best yet.

This is a Hamlet to die for - outstandingly powerful and atmospheric - and die they do, leaving hardly a man standing as poison, sword, blunt instrument or suicide claim them one by one. Even knowing the outcome this is a riveting and exciting thriller by any standard.

The body of the church has been transformed lengthways to create two raised performance areas with the aisle between them and the audience seated each side - inspired staging which works extremely well on two fronts. With the lack of raked seating, raised stages mean no one loses any of the action and it also gives this energetic company plenty of scope to appear from every conceivable angle, almost enclosing the audience in the plot and keeping them totally involved. Heads constantly swivel from side to side and even to the back, never quite knowing where to expect the next scene to appear. Director Caroline Devlin achieves surprises at every turn.

Performances are stupendous, meaning and clarity in every word, gesture and expression, especially with Ben Ashton’s Hamlet. We feel his pain, confusion and occasional lifting of spirits every step of the way with all his changing moods. He spits venom when discussing his murderous step-father Claudius, yet can smile at him while his eyes betray mistrust and loathing. He broods introspectively about the meaning of life and whether it is enough revenge to kill a man while he is at prayer, yet he also manages lighter moments. The meeting with university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern banishes his assumed madness in an ecstasy of greetings and horseplay (the unlucky Rosencrantz gets a ‘wedgie’) and in his sword fight with Matt Pinches’ Laertes he shows exhilaration in action and the joy of combat.

The fight is ferociously realistic, swords swinging and clashing in seeming wild abandon and one of the most convincing duels I have ever seen staged. (Fight director Philip d’Orleans).

Augustina Seymour’s Ophelia, presented first of all as a gauche schoolgirl (although I found it hard to come to terms with the black boots), glamorises beautifully before her descent into wild and totally heart-rending madness. Gertrude is a queen regal in bearing, but gentle and obedient to her new husband, anxious for the welfare of what she sees as her wayward son and frightened by his intensity, and all these emotions are perfectly obvious in Johanne Murdock’s sensitive portrayal.

Even the murdering Claudius (Noel White) shows uncertainty and possible remorse towards the end, and until his death, Polonius (Edward Halsted) is a conscientious counsellor giving advice to his children who have obviously heard it all before.

Too many cast to mention, too many emotions to convey, but this is a most accessible, clear and involving presentation of a complex and compelling play. The ghost scenes with lighting and smoke effects, together with music and sound were frighteningly eerie and very effective.

Devlin and the cast hoped to achieve “an extraordinary theatrical experience in a incredible setting”. They’ve done it! Unforgettable!

Until 26th February 2011

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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