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Hamlet

William Shakespeare
Natural Perspectives at the Old Royal Observatory Garden, Greenwich Park, London
(2003)

The Old Royal Observatory Garden in Greenwich Park is an ideal setting for an open-air performance. It's a large, oval-shaped garden, enclosed by lots of greenery, with one gated entrance, hidden away behind and below the Observatory building -- so hidden away, in fact, that I had to ask an attendant at the Observatory itself how to find it.

For this production, the grass is marked out by sanded lines, with two large oval areas for the audience to sit in, leaving the actors the outer ring, a central gangway, and spaces at the lower and upper ends. Indeed, one of the interesting things about this production is the way that all the available space is used, with the actors sometimes even straying into the audience when the mood takes them.

Audience seating is mostly on the grass, but chairs are provided for the elderly and disabled. It was raining quite heavily on the night I was there, but that did not seem to deter anyone. As I sat huddled under my umbrella in heavy drizzle, waiting for the show to begin, I found myself humming "There's no business like show business ... let's go on with the show", sensing that there was no intention of its being cancelled. After all, this was press night!

The rain continued throughout the first half of the play -- sometimes quite heavily -- and I had every admiration for the actors, who were getting drenched to the skin in quite flimsy costumes without showing any signs of discomfort. Inevitably, the weather situation meant that some lines raised a wry (though not a dry) laugh: Hamlet's complaint that he was "too much in the sun", Claudius's question "Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens ...". But thankfully the rain stopped during the interval, and the whole of the second half stayed dry. Here endeth the weather report.

Hamlet is played with alacrity by Matthew Bulgo. A wiry and energetic actor, dressed in the customary black, he is always interesting to watch, and puts a lot of variety into his performance; indeed, I gather he changes his actions from one performance to the next, to keep his fellow-actors in an appropriate state of uncertainty. Justin Mitchell, similar in build to Bulgo, is well cast as Horatio, and plays his role with empathy. The tall, slim Philip Desmeules plays both Claudius and the Ghost -- his ghostly stalkings are done in a kind of other-worldly, slow motion way, with stiffly open corpse-like mouth and 'dead' eyes. Gertrude is played by Sarah Jane Wolverson, looking suitably regal and elegant -- I was struck by her similarity to the stately allegorical female figures in Tenniel's political cartoons for Punch. Ophelia is played by Michelle Bonnard, whose singing during her mad scene is especially effective and touching. Her brother Laertes is played dashingly by Alex Bartram: I enjoyed his furious confrontation with Claudius on his return from France, and the fight scene with Hamlet was well choreographed (by Jonathan Waller). Ophelia and Laertes show real affection for their father, while at the same time laughing at his obvious officiousness: Polonius is played by Alan Drake, with some nicely observed humour and formal little steps to suggest the slow workings of his mind.

The supporting actors, too, are all well cast and interesting to watch: Gus Gallagher (double cast with Tommy Luther) as Rosencrantz and the Player King (with a subtly melodramatic-heroic Hecuba speech), Alastair Kirton as Guildenstern and the Player Queen, and Colin Hardy as Marcellus, the Gravedigger and Osric -- the latter two character roles give Hardy an opportunity to show his undoubted versatility, and there is a heartstopping moment when, as Gravedigger, he hurls a skull the length of the garden over the audience's heads, to land neatly at Hamlet's feet.

A recent graduate from the directors' course at LAMDA, Matt Peover is already making his mark, and is one of Lyn Gardener's Pick of the Fringe for 2003. He has directed Beckett's Endgame and Sam Shephard's Cowboy Mouth at the Battersea Arts Centre; one of his next productions will be Sarah Kane's Crave. This production of Hamlet is very much to his credit, and I hope we shall see more Shakespeare from him.

Natural Perspectives is a witty name for this group, since it's not just a reference to open-air settings but is also a Shakespearean quotation (from Twelfth Night ). An actor-led company, it was founded in 2000, and has performed Shakespeare in Greenwich Park for the past four years (previous plays were all comedies: A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It and Twelfth Night). Future projects include a Christmas Show, Djinn, and a piece based on the life of the eighteenth-century cross-dressing French aristocrat, the Chevalier d'Eon. This is clearly a theatre company to take note of, in all seasons and in all weathers.

"Hamlet" plays at the Old Royal Observatory Garden, Greenwich Park, until 10th August.

It then goes to Middle Temple Garden, The Middle Temple, London, from 20th to 24th August

Reviewer: Gill Stoker