Play By Candlelight: Hamlet (2022)

Photo credit: Johan Persson

You caught me red-handed. As soon as Hamlet was announced as part of the 2021-22 winter season my eyes rolled so hard I nearly saw the inside of my eye sockets. Unlike the current government, I’m not going to try and cover that up or pretend I held the opposite opinion – in fact, I’m going to link directly to my preview post in case anyone reading this missed it. I was desperately disappointed. But then something magical happened: a Hamlet unlike any other – and I’ve seen the Shit-faced Shakespeare and the Brandreth family versions. I have enjoyed Sean Holmes’ work in the past (such as his vibrant A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Globe Theatre), but I think this tops the lot now.

One remarkable fact is that this is the first time that Hamlet has been produced in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; for a play with so much introspection and darkness, it’s definitely surprising that it has taken this long for it to make the leap. The closed-in and intimate surroundings double excellently as the oppressive Elsinore, making you understand more than ever how easy it is for Hamlet to equate it to a prison. This production also takes the bold decision to include two intervals; it’s mostly for practical reasons, as it allows the stage to be reset in each break, but it also means that the play is broken down into slightly more manageable chunks – too often it’s a lopsided affair, with a first act verging on two hours as you wait for a natural pause. It’s been edited and switched around a bit (dramaturgy from Zoë Svendsen), but that’s the norm for Hamlet (unless you want to spend over four hours watching absolutely everything); including non-Shakespearean text isn’t going to please the traditionalists, but quite frankly they’ve had their way for long enough.

This is probably the most engaged an audience I’ve seen at any version of this particular play, and much of that comes down to the amount of comedy that’s been found – granted, some of it is parachuted in, but for the most part it’s simply down to the interpretation of the original text. Casting George Fouracres in the lead role was an absolute masterstroke; I doubt anyone has ever gone straight from playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night to taking on the Prince of Denmark, but maybe from now on we’ll see less predictable choices being made. His Black Country accent works incredibly well, as it naturally lends itself to the inherent melancholy which Hamlet lives with, as well as a dry take on the humour in the play. That’s not to say that Fouracres is just going for the laughs, as he recognises the moments of high drama & emotion that need a bit more gravity, and brings the audience along with him – the contrast between these two states only enhances them.

It’s not just the eponymous prince mixing things up, but also the elder statesmen of Elsinore; there are typical ways in which you see Claudius & Polonius being played, which make perfect sense but also leave you wondering whether there’s a viable alternative – Irfan Shamji & John Lightbody do this brilliantly. Claudius is generally portrayed as villainous, cold, and distinctly evil – but in this production it’s key to pick up on the line from Hamlet about Claudius being the opposite of his brother, the old King Hamlet. The former monarch is talked about reverentially; you get the impression he was a man of dignity & integrity, and (above all) a natural leader. With Shamji’s slightly bumbling Claudius you get the feeling he’s in too deep – he wanted the title but didn’t think through the consequences. A Johnson to King Hamlet’s Attlee, perhaps? Lightbody’s Polonius, however, begins as a slightly sinister & creepy presence; any semblance of efficiency & knowledgeability quickly wears off as you see he has an inflated sense of his own abilities. I’m tempted to call him Raabian, but at this point any name would fit the bill.

It can also be easy to make Ophelia a bit of a wet blanket, walked over and pushed around by the multitude of men in her life, but Rachel Hannah Clarke ensures she’s full of spirit and defiant until the end. Her descent into ‘madness’ is heartbreaking, and also an eye-opening moment for the rest of the court – only it’s come far too late. The simplicity of a single guitar providing backing music & atmospherics makes a nice change, and works effectively within this smaller space; musician & actor Ed Gaughan is also a great addition later on as the gravedigger – just when you start to wonder if things should be brought to a swift conclusion, that scene properly refreshes you and gives you enough impetus to see the play through to its tragic conclusion.

Grace Smart’s design is just superb; the set begins all clean & pristine, and the entire cast is in Shakespearean garb – but this all begins to deteriorate as Hamlet puts on his “antic disposition”, injecting his own chaos into Elsinore as he struggles to avenge his father. As each act & scene march on, so you see entropy at work. The veneer is steadily removed as secrets are uncovered, characters lose their grip on reality, and Hamlet’s plan comes to fruition; this comes in the form of both the change in set (graffitied then stripped back) and modern dress starting to sneak in.

All in all, for me this production is a hit (“a very palpable hit”). There is quite a bit going on, but it balances perfectly well with Hamlet’s soliloquies and moments of reflection – and truly shows the play in a new light.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

My verdict? A fresh new approach to a familiar play, showing it in a brand new light – a very palpable hit.

Rating: 5*

Hamlet runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 9 April 2022. Tickets are available online.

2 thoughts on “Play By Candlelight: Hamlet (2022)

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