Hamlet - Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 23rd & 24th April (4 stars)

Hamlet - Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 23rd & 24th April

Two-Day Productions in association with Mermaids and the Antony Tudor Fund
On The Rocks arts festival

Though a good Hamlet does not always a good Hamlet make, a bad Hamlet does (every time) do the opposite. Fortunately, Jamie Wightman, who played the lead role in this production, was excellent. Dressed in contemporary ‘indie’ fashion – memorably: a ‘distressed’ side-parting, a broad leather wrist strap, a fitted waistcoat, and pointy shoes – the play’s eponymous anti-hero was very much that. Next to Claudius (Hamlet’s late father’s brother, and new King of Denmark), in a stiff, military coat and boots, and Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother, and new wife of Claudius) in a royal-red velvet gown, the prince looked very anti-establishment, very teenage-angst-ridden.

But if we were supposed to regard Hamlet’s anguish (even partly) as an indulgent, adolescent pose, it was a most convincing one. Wightman had rehearsed the role for seven months: such longevity had produced not staleness but rather a deep understanding of his character’s somewhat complex ambition. Months of rehearsing gave Wightman a polish that was not a finish; he appeared to be discovering Hamlet for himself, to be inhabiting anew more intimate depths of the character, even on this, the First Night performance.

The role of Hamlet must be supported, though; and, here, it was – with strong performances from Rebecca Hawley as Gertrude, whose powerful, often silent stage-presence conveyed a very feminine suffering, and Joseph Potts, who played a buttoned-up, but no less tormented, Claudius. In an impassioned soliloquy after the play in which his murder of his brother is paralleled (‘O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven’), Claudius stood, then knelt in a small, strong spotlight at the front of the stage. What was let out by the dramatic necessity to speak aloud his thoughts, was then turned back in, in the claustrophobic intensity of the spotlight.

Ophelia (Ella Wright) was movingly portrayed. She exuded a childlike innocence, which soon turned to helplessness, as she sat on the steps that led to the raised back of the stage, one strap of her dress having fallen down, watching her beloved Hamlet rave before her, ‘Get thee to a nunnery!’. When Ophelia, after Hamlet’s mistaken murder of her father Polonius, later entered the stage, hair dishevelled and dress muddied and pierced with clinging wild flowers, her madness was thus all the more pathetic.

Hamlet’s feigned madness, by contrast, was at times comic. He was one minute side-shuffling across the stage, delivering speeches through his glove-puppet-substitute right hand, and the next minute staring out over the audience, apparently possessed, eyes and neck-veins bulging with varying degrees of blueness. Christophel Zegel exploited the moments of comedy in this early tragedy well – something directors too often overlook or shy away from. When the late King’s ghost appeared to Hamlet (in what had until then been a mirror, a mere period touch), he urged him to speak to his mother (who, though present, could not see the ghost), to ‘step between her and her fighting soul’ as she struggled with Hamlet’s murder of Polonius and following announcement that her new husband murdered her first. Wightman paused, before the hopelessly inappropriate ‘How is’t with you, lady?’ – and his delivery got a good laugh out of the audience.

This was not an experimental or ‘interpretative’ production of Shakespeare’s classic, but one that deserves praise for its compelling performances, its pace and its slickness – a slickness that did not come at the expense of continued, genuine exploration.

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