Caroline Gaunt sees the recent production if Hamlet stuck between classic and modern adaptation.
Hamlet is a massive play – both in length and reputation – and Nadsat Theatre Company deserve commendation for taking it on. Eschewing the temptation to modernise the play, director Charlie Oulton intended to ‘let Shakespeare’s story and language carry itself, without giving the play a specific time stamp.’ However, I’m not entirely sure that this approach was effective and the resulting production was seriously flawed.
There were certainly moments of brilliance, almost entirely provided by Tom McNulty as Hamlet, who was quite simply mesmerizing to watch – vibrant, full of energy, and by turns vulnerable and terrifyingly psychotic. I would have liked to have seen him vary his tone more – there were a lot of exchanges which degenerated into shrieking on both sides – but altogether I feel that his performance was the most spell-binding of the production. Other actors were less successful – Felix Stevenson as Horatio seemed more focussed on giving colour to what can be a slightly insipid role to actually enunciate his lines at all, and whilst I commend Mike Clarke for his attempts to draw the comedy out of Polonius, I feel that he sometimes overbalanced his scenes and robbed them of any poignancy as a result. This was most notable in scenes with Ophelia, where Lucie Crawford’s sensitive performance was effectively undermined by Clarke’s decision to play Polonius for laughs.
Monotone was another huge issue, and I often got the impression that actors were delivering their lines without really acting them. This was particularly evident in the scene where Hamlet’s father, as a ghost, reveals he was murdered – the dramatic impetus of the scene was diluted by Adam Kirkbride’s monotone delivery.
I feel that the problems with characterisation are a direct result of Oulton’s decision not to put a time-stamp on his production, meaning that actors were unsure of whether to play their characters with more modernity or in a classic style, which led to some striking incongruity within scenes. The problems created by this approach extended into issues with the technical side of the show. The mish-mash of styles of costumes was disorientating and looked clumsy, whereas the decision to have a classical sword-fight and have Gertrude’s death occur as a result of drinking from a medieval goblet jarred completely with prior events.
Other aspects of tech were nothing if not innovative. Film was used throughout the production, sometimes extremely effectively. The decision to portray the player’s scene as a silent movie projected on to the back of stage was intelligent and well carried-out, by far the most effective use of cinematography within the play. However, other uses of film seemed gratuitous, particularly the short film in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father is revealed to his companions.
The music often detracted rather than added anything to scenes, particularly as it often began to play mid-way through a scene. Lighting tended towards insensitivity – a green tinge as Gertrude revealed Ophelia’s death, a dominance of red in particularly brutal moments… My issue is that the actors were doing a wonderful job of bringing out the drama in these scenes anyway, and didn’t need such obvious lighting to help them along. By contrast, some scenes suffered from poor lighting, so that characters were delivering lines in near-obscurity, and reactions were lost on the audience.
Fundamentally I’m not sure whether it is possible to create a production where period is completely irrelevant and ignored – costumes and mannerisms, among others, are always going to be indicative of era, and whilst it is refreshing to see a production of Hamlet which does not attempt overt modernisation, I really feel that Oulton created a rod for his own back by taking the ‘time-less’ approach. Nadsat Theatre Company’s production deserves to be commended for its innovative approach to one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, but the resulting production is disappointing and carried only by some phenomenally talented actors.