Calder Hudson reviews ‘Hamlet’, directed by Mathilde Johnsen and produced by Hannah Kate Risser and Amanda Hollinger, that went up in the Byre on April 22-24th. Perfect timing, as Shakespeare’s Birthday and Deathday is April 23rd.      

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Hamlet, a production three years in the making, is impressive in both its ambition and its scope. Both cast and crew no doubt undertook great labors to bring it to fruition, and the product of all their hard work opened this week in the Byre theatre (which closed and opened all while Hamlet was still in development). In many aspects, Hamlet took significant risks; though not every one resulted in success, the production as a whole deserves respect for having the guts to take them.

There is much and more to discuss with this production, which set itself apart from all other performances of Shakespeare’s infamous Danish tragedy through varied means. Discussing each detail would make this review even longer than it already will be, so it is perhaps wise to focus on three primary areas: the show’s tech, the show’s adaptation, and the cast’s performance.

The tech, first and foremost, was overall a huge success. Hamlet took place on a strong and austere set, taking benefit from its simplicity; though multiple scene changes occurred over the course of the lengthy performance, all the scenery adhered to one unifying visual aesthetic. More importantly, Hamlet used its set in excellent tandem with its lighting, and each new scene displayed a symbiotic relationship between these two technical elements. Visually, the show was impeccable at certain instances; the ‘to be or not to be’ speech was one of the most impressive visual feats I have seen in my time at St Andrews. In terms of its costumes, the play chose a conventional route via its modern dress, which worked well alongside the aforementioned elements.

The play’s audio effects—because of their greater significance to the narrative—cannot be fully addressed here, but suffice to say that there were some issues with divergent volume levels throughout the production. Even the most overt technical issue in the show revealed one of its strengths; though the attempt to age-up many characters by accentuating their cheekbones with makeup proved sadly forlorn, this is at least in part because the intended effect only worked under some of the show’s many different lights. Though this doesn’t excuse the error, it does at least evidence the range of lighting effects which Hamlet effectively utilized.

The play’s considerable adaption became one of its more intriguing features as the narrative progressed, revealing more of this production’s unique story. In total, this Hamlet—cut considerably—still lasted roughly three hours, including its intermission; this alone shows that some cuts to Shakespeare are always prudent. However, Hamlet did not alter its script solely to abridge the story, but also to change certain characters’ motivations and to reshape the overall tone and temperament of the tale. Most notably, Claudius—typically the play’s antagonist—was, through the cuts, vindicated from his supposed regicide; indeed, all the incontrovertibly damning references to his prior crime were removed, so as to imply he was innocent of this murder and that Hamlet’s ghostly encounters were completely hallucinated. This change drastically altered the story’s tone, since Prince Hamlet’s insanity—half-feigned, half-earnest—is normally a point of significant ambiguity, and Hamlet himself is a conflicted figure.

By removing any reasonable doubt as to Hamlet’s madness, the play did not need to try and make him likable or sympathetic, and could more readily embrace and emphasize the flaws in his character. Instead of asking audiences whether or not Hamlet is insane, as per usual, the changed script proposed a new question: was Claudius, for his later attempts to kill Hamlet (despite, as aforementioned, his innocence in Hamlet Sr.’s death) justified by Hamlet’s deadly, erratic, and villainous behavior? This question and the total overhaul of Claudius’ character and morality proved a thought-provoking, innovative, and charming change. Alongside this difference, made mostly through script, were other, smaller re-characterizations, as well as other cuts. Hamlet, by these and many other alterations, worked to distinguish itself from other performances: the result was new and refreshing, and perhaps the most iconic aspect of this particular performance.

One danger inherent to the cuts, however, was the significant way in which they changed Hamlet’s narrative arc. Though the cuts removed any doubt as to Hamlet’s insanity, as aforementioned, the production was not eager to lose the thematic role of this half-mad ambiguity, and sought other ways to insert it. To create a disturbed and unnerving atmosphere (in part to replace this loss), the first half of the production (or more accurately, the first two thirds, as the intermission began quite late into the play itself) featured a great deal of background audio—long stints of haunting white noise interspersed with garbled words and other anomalies. Though the thematic intent of this was clear, it at times became so loud that it drowned out the onstage dialogues and monologues—and, oddly, it did not return after the intermission, meaning the potential from its conclusion was lost at the play’s climax. This made the sound effects in much of the play seem needlessly edgy or superfluous; though their inclusion is again understandable, atmospheric additives should be auxiliary to theming, not its foundation.

Now, as for the assessment of how these elements converged and cooperated in the live performance—and whether or not Hamlet’s cast executed them well: this question is difficult to answer in part because of the huge range of quality between scenes. Very few scenes in the play felt as though they were more-or-less indicative of the show overall; by and large, individual scenes were either amazing or unfulfilling and forgettable. Almost the entirety of the show’s opening (which, to be fair, was cut down considerably) lacked polish, and more importantly lacked charisma and energy. Though Hamlet’s Hamlet (Jack Briggs) displayed considerable skill and range, his Achilles heel proved to be his clunky transitions between himself and his father’s ghost, which feature prominently in the first act of the play. Mercifully, however, the play took a drastic turn for the better around the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Coco Claxton and Annabel Ekelund, respectively) in Act II—not only because both parts were played well, but because the play felt far more cohesive, polished, and rehearsed after this point (though the weak opening can likely be put down to opening-night jitters). Thereafter the play gained strength and momentum, perhaps as best evidenced by the improvement and rising confidence of its lead actor.

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Unfortunately the play’s final scenes (and lines) proved oddly unenergetic, impassionate, and anticlimactic, so that the bloodbath which concludes the play actually turned out to be one of its weakest moments, despite some well-orchestrated swordplay. It was a shame that the play’s final scene fell short of so many others, but this is at least in part because some earlier scenes were unassailable in their strength.

The performance’s blocking was another clear indicator of disparity between scenes. Every scene in Hamlet which featured original blocking was blocked well; in each, character movement was motivated and believable. However, other scenes chose not to take the same risks, and instead played it safe—the result of which, though not necessarily faulty, proved uninteresting. The best example of this was the first scene between Laertes and Ophelia, in which Laertes counsels Ophelia towards chastity and Ophelia accuses him of hypocrisy; to make this point, Ophelia rifles through Laertes’ bags and produces several condoms. This is an accessible and recognizable joke, and not a bad one by any means—but the scene almost identically mirrored in the recent film version of Hamlet starring David Tennant, as did some other parts of the production. Instances such as these proved somewhat disappointing, if only due to their unoriginality. They added to the impression that some scenes felt more reworked and refined than others.

On a better note: as for individual acting performances, there are many noteworthy ones to mention. First and foremost was Claudius (Ebe Bamgboye) who possessed such a dynamic stage presence that he became the focal point of every single scene in which he featured.  Whenever he and Gertrude (Cara Mahoney) appeared together, it was an absolute treat, as both actors—two of St Andrews’ most talented performers—had excellent chemistry and worked well off of one another’s energy. Another duo, though in no way affiliated within the text, deserves great congratulation as well; Kuffasse Boane and Adam Spencer—playing more minor characters—had fewer lines of their own, but both possessed excellent stage presence and were utterly committed to their roles, adding believability and energy to all their scenes. Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia (David Trimble, A.J. Brennan, and Kate Kitchens, respectively) were also noteworthy in part because their characters were all very fleshed out within the narrative itself; Laertes and Polonius in particular were characterized quite differently than they are in most productions. Ophelia’s subplot clearly had so much directorial and stylistic thought put into it that it at times overshadowed Hamlet’s own storyline; though this placed a considerable amount of pressure on her, Kitchens managed the task commendably. It is of course obligatory to make reference to Hamlet himself; as aforesaid, lead actor Jack Briggs began the show on a weak note, but managed to rally and prove himself as the narrative progressed, and delivered several iconic speeches with aplomb.

To make a long review short, Hamlet was pleasantly original, but inconstant from scene to scene, featuring peerless highs and disappointing lows in abrupt succession. Nonetheless, strong tech and good acting—alongside interesting choices in terms of adapting Shakespeare’s script—made this a unique and exciting performance. Much like the production’s tall, iconic throne, this Hamlet has been remodeled and changed from its original mold to create something new, interesting, and distinct. The nature of taking risks is that some succeed and some don’t; not only did Hamlet have the bravery to take gambles, but more often than not, they paid off.

 

 

Calder Hudson

 

 

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