William Shakespeare’s existential revenge thriller ‘Hamlet’ has to be the most overthought play in human history. So you can see the appeal of just whacking out a fast-paced production that dispenses with an overriding ‘concept’, and instead just goes with the cues provided by the text.
The reality, however, is that this ambitious production from the Michelle Terry-led company of actors that’s also performing ‘As You Like It’ falls a bit flat.
As with ‘As You Like It’, it’s a production in which the actors were brought in as collaborators from the very start. They gel together a bit better here, but it rarely reaches the same eccentric highs, and it’s difficult to really see that some great reward has really been gained from the process.
It has one very obviously selling point: Terry herself, in the title role. And the normally brilliant actor (and new Globe artistic director) is... pretty good. Where most of the cast in the rep shows feel like they’re performing a defined gender role (regardless of their own gender), Terry plays Hamlet as a sort of sulky androgyne, possibly a teenager, possibly an older princeling emotionally stunted by their privilege.
Considering the lack of ostentatious flourishes in the production, it is, at the very least, quite ‘notable’ when Terry comes on in full clown makeup during the Danish prince’s ‘mad’ phase. Her Hamlet seems passionately unhinged, bona fide disturbed. But what does it all add up to? Honestly, it’s difficult to know. The show shares ‘As You Like It’ directors Elle White and Federay Holmes and once more their inexperience shines though: there’s just no clarity of intent here. Were it not for the clown costume, which I’m not even really convinced means much, the show probably couldn’t even be said to have an aesthetic of any kind. Despite its relative brevity, it feels untended and meandering.
Compared to the riotous, vibrant ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that kicked off the reign of Terry’s controversially deposed predecessor Emma Rice, this feels pretty underwhelming. And next to London’s last big ‘Hamlet’, Robert Icke’s Almeida production, it’s left for dust.
But still – there’s a clip and a humanity here that brings something to the table. Richard Katz is nice as a gobby Polonius who seems pretty keen to marry off his daughter Ophelia, who is played with great dignity by Shubham Saraf. James Garnon is a hale and hearty Claudius, who seems like a decent sort who did one terrible thing. Pearce Quigley is his usual amusing self in a variety of roles, and in her way Nadia Nadarajah feels like the most important thing about the production – while the deaf actor is on stage is Guildenstern, the other characters communicate in BSL, surely the night’s most progressive flourish.
Still, fairly or not, ‘Hamlet’ demands exceptional productions, not okay ones with interesting bits. This gets a pass, just, but the fact that it’s not a patch on the previous regime’s best bits isn't really making Rice’s departure any easier to take.