English Touring Theatre
Buxton Opera House and touring
Stephen Unwin and English Touring Theatre have an excellent reputation for taking familiar plays and giving them a fresh, uncluttered treatment without resorting to gimmicks. Three years ago at Buxton I saw a superb production of King Lear, with Timothy West in the title role, so I was anticipating an outstanding version of Hamlet.
Unwin has cut the play to lose some of the passages which he feels are incomprehensible to a modern audience. This leads to the play rattling along with a fair amount of pace - but while you could hardly describe the production as ordinary, it doesn't have the pizzazz to make it unforgettable.
Unwin's Elsinore is a dark, unwelcoming place; but unlike Michael Boyd's Elsinore at the RSC last year, it doesn't give the impression of being such a foreboding place that everyone's rushing to get away.
The costumes in this latest production are, with a few exceptions, colourless. It cries out for someone who can light up the stage whenever he or she appears on stage. While several actors give good performances, none gives this difficult play a much-needed spark.
Ed Stoppard, son of Sir Tom and Miriam, makes his ETT debut as the Prince. He's an intelligent, lively Hamlet who's pained about the death of his father without having the weight of the world on his shoulders. He becomes angry with himself for not taking revenge on Claudius for murdering his father, remembering the ghost's proclamation that he should "taint not thy mind". However, I didn't feel sympathy for the character and Stoppard's comic timing was off the mark.
There are few laughs in Unwin's production - even the gravedigger doesn't provide the usual amount of levity. Michael Cronin is more successful as Polonius than the man with the shovel. His Polonius is a wise, strong-willed counsellor who commands respect; in no way is he a bumbling old fool.
Perhaps the finest performance comes from Alice Patten as Ophelia. She is naive, without much life experience, afraid of her domineering father and infatuated with yet nervous of Hamlet because she's unable to understand his mood swings.
Ben Warwick (Laertes) is genuinely distraught at the death of his sister, David Robb is an evil, remorseless Claudius and Patrick Drury a troubled ghost who appears out of nowhere thanks to Malcolm Rippeth's excellent lighting.
I was really disappointed with Anita Dobson as Gertrude. She shows little passion for her new husband, only slightly more concern for Hamlet when he's going through behavioural problems and little emotion when the Prince slays Polonius.
Unwin has taken all the punctuation out of the verse because he says we have little sense of how Shakespeare would have punctuated his work and academic editors tend to follow the conventions of Victorian and modern English. But in going for a fresh approach, Unwin hasn't picked up his actors on their delivery: Hamlet's "Frailty, thy name is woman" is lost and Polonious babbles his way through "Neither a borrower nor a lender be".
The final fight between Hamlet and Laertes is rather tentative and not as exciting as you would expect from two supposedly experienced swordsmen.
On the whole it's a good but not particularly remarkable presentation from a company which doesn't live up to its own very high standards.
Reviewer: Steve Orme