William Shakespeare
R.J. Williamson Company: Nottingham Castle and Touring

You would have thought that 400 years after Shakespeare wrote his greatest works, there wouldn't be any new way to "speak the speech" apart from "trippingly on the tongue". But with the R J Williamson Company, you're always guaranteed something a little out of the ordinary yet without gimmicks.

Robert Williamson comes on stage for the "To be or not to be" speech with a falcon on his arm, the bird being dispatched onto the grandstand roof after the first few lines.

Williamson is in his ninth year of putting on open-air Shakespeare festivals, so he knows what works and what doesn't. His production is memorable because it's different.

Not only does Williamson speak his lines clearly and with understanding, he gives you new insight into Hamlet's character. This is most notable when he faces the ghost of his father for the first time. You only hear the ghost as Hamlet writhes on the stage, scrunching himself up into the foetal position as he is overcome with grief at the extraordinary revelation of the king's murder.

It's an excellent portrayal by Williamson: you laugh with him when he's making fun of Polonius, you feel for him when he hesitates over his quest for revenge and you want him to come out on top although you know that can't happen.

If you think Williamson has taken on too much, organising the whole tour as well as directing and taking the lead role, that's certainly not the case. For a start, he's surrounded himself with actors who are veterans of RJW productions and know exactly what he's looking for, so presumably they don't need much direction.

Michael Gabe is a fine Polonius, not a dodderer but a sprightly trouper who makes the most of his comical lines; John Ioannou's Claudius is commanding without being completely evil; and Darrell Brockis is a passionate, animated Laertes. As for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Jonathan Coope and David Patterson are similarly flamboyantly dressed and change suddenly from fawning to fearful when Hamlet sees through their scheme.

There are also solid performances from Sarah Douglas as Gertrude, Callum Hayes (Horatio) and Lincoln James, the cheeky gravedigger. The beautiful singing of Natasha Kemball starts and ends the evening.

Emily Lloyd as Ophelia, however, who is appearing in her first stage production, is disappointing. BAFTA-nominated for her role as Linda in Wish You Were Here, she can sometimes hardly be heard. Occasionally she speaks too quickly and often recites her lines without appearing to grasp the meaning. She seems detached from what's going on around her, she appears neither frightened nor concerned when Hamlet orders her to a nunnery and there is little change in her behaviour as she descends into madness.

Parts of the play have been cut out so that the action fairly rattles along and maintains your attention throughout. All in all it's a superb production which enhances even further the reputation of both Williamson and his company.

"Hamlet" tours until September 5th

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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