REVIEW – Hamlet

Local church site of tragedy

Shakespeare's famous tragedy was staged at the Round Church which, with its unique layout and Gothic Revival architectural features, presented both challenges and opportunities for experimentation. The cast and crew handled these well.

The innovative use of lighting was a great point of interest. An image of a funeral vigil was invoked as the cast lit candles at the play's beginning; this, in coalition with the church setting, helped to set the tone for what was to come. The method of lighting the actors from below established a hint of unreality.

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Photo credit: Kristen Chin Yan Han

Other highlights were the execution of the first ghost scene and Hamlet’s soliloquy, with the stage area and the rest of the church shrouded in shadow, broken only by the actors’ held candles. The ghost’s speech was represented by a multitude of voices, arising from behind the audience – an inspired choice. There were parts in the following scenes where I found myself looking over my shoulder to see if the spectre would return. However, one issue with the lighting was that some of the LED lights could be overly bright and distracting at points, especially if you were facing them directly.

Seating the audience close to the stage area created a sense of immediacy and aided the atmosphere of high-running tension, especially in the second half of the play. Framing the stage with the large columns further contributed to the sense of unknown and unease in the play’s scenes. I have concerns that the audience in the third row may have had impeded visibility, though I did note that the staging of scenes accounted for the rounded layout of audience seating.

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Photo credit: Gabriel Humphreys

The whole cast gave praiseworthy performances, and the dramatic, more emotional scenes were truly moving. Each character had their own distinct way of moving around the stage and smaller gestures were used to great effect in contributing to the tone and characterisation. This was quite apparent with the jitteriness that accompanied Polonius (Will Hale) in contrast to the relative stillness of other characters, while the idle hand gestures of Claudius (Alex Hill) always managed to seem quite 'off'.

Credit is due in particular to Hamlet (Jamie Sayers), Gertrude (Rhonwen Cash), and Ophelia (Ella Blackburn), who managed to make confrontational scenes truly visceral. Moreover, Ophelia’s descent into madness was rendered eerily as her songs echoed in the gloomy church setting and her flowery dress became horribly prescient.

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Photo credit: Gabriel Humphreys

Also worthy of note was the Fight Director (Tom Nunan), who choreographed a fast-paced and very tense swordfight scene between Hamlet and Laertes (Charlie Saddington). Considering the number of deaths in the play, it was to the credit of the production that they were delivered with gravity and did not veer into melodrama. That of Gertrude especially was very subdued, and touched upon the motif of face-touching which had appeared earlier in the play, reframing it as something less than it had been previously.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable show that leaned into the ambiguities and uncertainties that characterise Shakespeare’s play. Given that the play has sold out, I hope that other theatregoers have as great a time as I did!

4/5 stars