I will happily challenge anyone who doesn’t believe that Hamlet is in the top three most performed Shakespeare plays, and probably number one.There have been so many productions in recent times that the challenge is how to make your version stand out. The RSC did this by getting Doctor Who (David Tennant) to play Hamlet, and Disney even tried doing Hamlet with lions. So when a small, but well reputed theatre company in South East London try to do a play that’s been done so many times, how do they keep it fresh?
The Galleon theatre company opts to cut the play down to two hours, and for the most part, director Bruce Jamieson (who also played Claudius) makes it work. He keeps the famous and vital scenes intact, whilst cutting out many altogether. This fast tempo creates a real sense of urgency among the characters, though some tedious scenes, such as the players going on about Priam, are left intact.
Robin Holden, whose impressive ever changing portrayal of Hamlet, occupies the title role. Too often those who play Hamlet only use one ‘mode’ for the role, ranging from boy going mad, delicate schemer, angry teenager to angst-driven hormonal whine-bag. What Holden does well is appreciate the Prince’s varying emotional states, and he applies different styles magnificently throughout the play. These swings in styles and moods add to the urgency and introduce some unpredictability to a very familiar play.
The rest of the roles are played very conventionally, most likely because of the reduced script. Given it is a two hour performance, no other character is afforded anywhere near the same stage-time as Hamlet, so there is not enough time to explore some of the play's nuances such as Ophelia’s turmoil or Laertes’ quite rage (though the whole Oedipus thing came through in spades). Jamieson plays Claudius magnificently, with a sense of entitlement and rough demeanour, though it could not have hurt to have more of Gertrude, who is played as very submissive by Jane Stanton. A good by-product of this reduced performance is that some characters lost importance, allowing Jamieson and the actors a real chance to have fun with them. The gravediggers are brilliant as are the matching-butler-attire Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are played with a real tweedledum and tweedledee element.
What doesn’t work? Eleanor Wodowski's costumes for a start are a mismatch, with nineteenth and early twentieth century clothes clashing with much older garb; indeed, the grave diggers are styled like Pirates of the Caribbean extras whilst the players look ridiculous. Some decisions like silently re-enacting cut out scenes on top of monologues are bizarre, as is the emptiness of the stage (Russell Fisher is credited with set and scene design). The Greenwich Playhouse would describe itself as ‘intimate,’ and even though the space is very well used by the actors, it couldn’t have hurt to have more than one bench as stage decoration. I did feel sorry for the brilliant Elana Martin (Ophelia) who ended up on the floor too many times for what I believe was a lack of options for places to sulk. The only other niggle is the climax, which is acted out far too quickly. However these are minor and the staging in general is excellent, accompanied by superb lighting design by Robert Gooch. The ghost is well lit and lighting such a small stage created some amazing (if unintentional) shadows. The sword fight is good value, as is the subtle use of sound.
Jamieson and producer Alice De Sousa have put together a great show. The fact it’s over in two hours makes the show accessible, and Jamieson has been careful not to compromise the story or leave any major plot points out. Purists may be shocked by some omissions, but all the key aspects are there and the small stage and gripping performances prove in this case at least that less is more.