“Student theatre at its very best”: OLI THICKNESSE is blown away by this innovative take on Shakepeare’s classic tragedy.

ADC Hamlet niall wilson sarah livingstone Shakespeare

ADC Theatre, 7.45pm, Tuesday 21st – Saturday 25th May, £8/6, £10/8

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Halfway through last night’s performance of Hamlet, I ran out of superlatives to describe what I was watching. Yes, it’s exam term, and yes, my mind is shattered, but my loss of words stemmed instead from this example of student theatre at its very best.

The effort that had been put into this production was palpable even before the safety curtain rose to reveal a bare, grey Elsinore: the Cold War theme was firmly established by the faux-timeline of East and West Denmark, which was itself a work of genius. Tracing the characters from near the end of the Second World War, director Niall Wilson offered us some genuine insight into their personal histories.

The claim that “Denmark is a prison” was never more apt: the stark set, punctuated by the occasional chair, really hammered home the emptiness of the court at Elsinore, which was complimented by the subtle but effective lighting changes during scenes. Moreover, the staging of the action was exemplary: using the aisles and even the lighting box as scenes for the drama, moments like the appearance of the Ghost were made genuinely terrifying, with the audience never sure where to look, or what to expect. Sure, it made our necks ache for a minute at the most, but who cared?

The use of the curtain to divide the stage was also inspired; leaving Polonius on the audience’s side of the action was both original and allowed tension to be built by the past-faced dialogue between Hamlet and Gertrude. However, by far the most effective aspect of the set was the installation of the massive clock at the rear of the stage, counting down from two and a half hours; dominating the stage, it served as a constant reminder of the inevitable nature of the tragedy unfolding before us, and was well used at certain moments for effect. I won’t ruin the rest, but all hail to the ‘Clock King’, Tony Dent – it would have been even better had the countdown finished exactly with the action on stage, but this is a minor quibble at most.

A word on the change of gender: this was no ‘gimmick’, as Wilson himself informed us. It worked perfectly, and, at moments, it was utterly believable that this was how Hamlet had originally been written. Some lines were given new depth – Ophelia’s “Man delights not me”, whilst some were given more comedy – “Man, my lord?” The central relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet was beautifully portrayed, never more so in their heart-stopping, frenzied kiss. So this was no gimmick; no sir.

Onto the performances, which were all stellar to say the least, with a few of the cast holding our attention for the entire length of the play – no mean feat. Sarah Livingstone’s Hamlet was always believable, whether in fooling or soliloquy, and her Rocky-esque dancing during all the chaos was fantastic. She was totally compelling, and really breathed new life into speeches. Yes, there were a few fluffed lines, but, in such a massive role, I was nothing if not impressed.

Ed Eustace’s Claudius was well conveyed, coming into his own at the end of the first half: his movement from oozing creep towards genuine madness was captivating, if a little pantomime villain at points. The confusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was ably portrayed, while Hellie Cranney was superb as the hysterical Gertrude, given so little to work with. But for me, the star was truly Ellen Robertson’s Ophelia; from first entrance to her final mad farewell, she was wonderfully resigned.

There were a few niggles: the Ghost seemed slightly overplayed, though the idea was solid, while some speeches dragged slightly. But these are tiny comments in comparison to the success of the show. Superb acting, original and breath-taking direction, and well-implemented ideas: you would be genuinely mad to miss this.