Saturday, 23 November 2013

Hamlet, Belvoir

There's a sense of anticipation to this one. Simon Stone is at the top of his game, Toby Schmitz similarly. And this is the first Shakespeare at Belvoir for a fair while - not since 2010's "Measure for Measure". And Hamlet is one of those roles that defines an actor as "the real thing" - it's a marathon part with lots of solid soliloquies, and has plenty of space for someone to show off their talents.

This is a particularly Hamlet-centric Hamlet - the cast has been chopped down to Hamlet's family and Orphelia's Family plus one courtier (with some lines reshuffled between characters to keep the play moving). And as the bodies pile up, the actors playing the recently-deceased (or, in the case of Hamlet's father, before-the-beginning-of-the-play-deceased) remain on stage as mute ghosts observing the remainder of the action. This can be creepy (Greg Stone's Polonius in particular) or surprisingly moving (as Polonius and Orphelia are re-united post-mortem) - and it makes it very clear exactly how many of the bodies on stage Hamlet is responsible for.

So while being Hamlet-centric, it's by no means sympathetic to him - it's quite bracingly unsentimental, in fact. Schmitz brings his soliloquies right into the face of the audience ... it's quote confronting to have Hamlet stare at you asking whether he should kill Claudius or not (and reacting sarcastically when you can't give him an easy answer). Hamlet is the quintessential angry young man, questioning all the certainties and striking out at the hypocrisies he sees around him - this production, though, doesn't let him off the hook for his own crimes and hyporisies, but instead leaves them very visible around him (in the shape of the bleeding and dripping bodies).

I don't know that all the artifice works. In particular, the funereal laments sung by Maximillian Reibel and played on piano by Luke Byrne give this a classicist feeling that I'm not entirely sure the rest of the production works in (it also leads to the finale, which is played semi-abstractly around Hamlet as a pile of corpses, death and pain - it works in the moment but it lends a lot of distance to the production). In some ways, this has the same "museum piece" feeling as Stone's 2011 production of "Thysestes" did - making us more observer than involved participant by the end. It's a deliberate choice and ... I'm not saying it's a wrong choice, but I'm saying it's a deliberately distancing choice that can make a play of hot, impulsive, dangerous passions come across as somewhat cold.

It's a production that engaged me, that made me think, anticipate, laugh, feel terrified, moved, and disturbed me. And in that sense, it's a great production.

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