Review: Hamlet, New Theatre Royal Portsmouth, Wednesday 16 February 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.
The longest and one of the most often-performed of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet is brimming with potential but requires sensitivity to its complexities and nuances to bring it fully to life. Icarus Theatre Collective’s production aims to give this well trodden ground a fresh and accessible twist, yet their interpretation skates over many of the depths of the text and never feels like it is doing much more than simply going through the motions. 

True to Icarus’s intentions of presenting a new and fresh production, there has been considerable chopping and changing of the original text, with even the iconic ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy being drastically relocated to the second half. What emerges, however, is not a radical re-reading; several of the choices feel arbitrary rather than artistic and there is no coherent vision for the production. Director Max Lewendel’s interpretation has taken one step towards radical re-imagining but stopped short and opted for a safe approach, leaving it awkwardly stranded somewhere between traditional and innovative.

The small cast struggle to flesh out a play that at times feels too big for them, putting in a collection of adequate but on the whole unchallenging performances, adding little to roles that have already been subject to interpretation upon interpretation. Loren O’Dair stands out from the rest with a touching, vulnerable portrait of the spurned Ophelia, rendering her emotions in delicate shades and doing a great deal with the short time she is on stage, while John Paton as Claudius has an uneven start but improves as the play progresses, adding some colour to what can be a two-dimensional villain.

More so than any other of the Bard’s plays, a production of Hamlet inevitably rests on the shoulders of its eponymous hero. Unfortunately, in this case Giles Roberts lacks the strength to bear this weight, not fully conveying the character’s depth of anguish and mental turmoil despite a few brilliant moments. So lengthy is the hesitation of Hamlet, the ultimate procrastinator, that it requires an actor of great skill and sensitivity to shed light on his protracted inner struggle. Rarely does Roberts achieve a moving sense of the prince’s plight, and with a lack of truthful emotion in several scenes, all too often this performance feels superficial and forced.

Icarus’s attempt at interpretation is patchy, with unnecessary and confused elements such as the use of human statues and the odd, distracting choice to cast female actress Dani McCallum in the role of Horatio. A powerful moment comes at the close of the first half as Hamlet stands poised over Claudius with his dagger raised, the combination of white-clad figures, echoing voices and eerie lighting achieving an impressive effect, but this is a rare diamond swamped in a gloom of mediocrity.

The purpose of theatre, according to Hamlet, is to ‘hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’. This production, however, falls somewhat short of capturing human passions as they are depicted in Shakespeare’s rich script. While Icarus may achieve their aim of making this text more accessible, there is little to get excited about in this uninspired interpretation.

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