New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and touring
Every year there appears to be one Shakespeare play which theatres from Land's End to Lossiemouth want to put on. At the moment it's Hamlet.
Only a month after seeing the National Theatre version on tour in Nottingham, I travelled the 44 miles to north Staffordshire to witness Northern Broadsides' take on Elsinore. Later this week Derby Theatre will be staging a non-professional Hamlet.
The New Vic's theatre-in-the-round is usually an atmospheric space which can conjure up any environment or occasion, if it's used adventurously. Hamlet, though, shows how the venue can both enhance and restrict a play.
It starts off in stunning fashion: air-raid sirens are followed by the sound of bagpipes being played from the upper gallery before actors with torches appear from the back of the auditorium as a dark, brooding aura pervades. It's a great use of the building.
Northern Broadsides often uses actors who are also accomplished musicians and Hamlet is no exception. A jazzy number, Tomorrow is St Valentine's Day, leads you to believe that you're in for something special.
But the 1940s costumes and minimalist set give little indication of an imposing, repressive court, the kind of place that Hamlet refers to as a prison. That's mainly because the company appears not to make the best use of the space.
There are some lively, engrossing performances but their effectiveness is reduced by the surroundings. For instance, Nicholas Shaw throws himself into the title role yet I couldn't summon up any sympathy for his dreadful predicament. I even felt detached from the action - unusual in the New Vic where you're usually drawn into the play.
During Hamlet's last speech before he dies, I think Shaw expresses far too little emotion. There's also hardly any change in his behaviour on his return from England; other Hamlets are usually more mature yet bent on revenge after their overseas experience.
Similarly, Fine Time Fontayne can hardly be faulted for his interpretation of Claudius. But he doesn't look a fearful king or dictator; his gravitas is compromised.
There's a neat touch when Richard Evans as Polonius forgets what he's saying and plays his cello before returning to reality. But his death lacks realism; a flimsy piece of netting poorly depicts the arras while there's no suggestion that the action's moved into Gertrude's bedroom.
Nelson Conrad who memorably played Iago alongside Lenny Henry in Northern Broadsides' 2009 production of Othello directs his first Shakespeare and has adapted the text with Debbie McAndrew. They've taken out most of the humour and the play arguably suffers because of it; I particularly missed Hamlet's making fun of Polonius's acting ability in front of the Players - it really is a capital offence.
The animosity between Hamlet and Tom Kanji's Laertes appears to me to be understated; Laertes' attack on Hamlet at Ophelia's funeral is more girly slaps than a fiery assault, and neither seems particularly accomplished with a sword.
Although the staging doesn't in my opinion make for an unforgettable Hamlet, there are strong performances from Natalie Dew as Ophelia; Andrew Price as Bernardo and the Player King; and Andy Cryer as Marcellus and Osric.
Overall, this Hamlet is just about a hit - but not a palpable one.
"Hamlet" continues at the New Vic until March 19th and then tours to Scarborough, Halifax, Aberystwyth, Leeds, Belfast, Isle of Man and Kingston
Reviewer: Steve Orme