Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Hamlet" - February 2010

Rapture Theatre have relocated "Hamlet" to Glasgow's criminal underworld in setting and design but have retained the Shakespearian text - and it works surprisingly well with intermittent local news broadcasts providing the background context. But "Hamlet" is a long play (even with the alterations applied here) and in order for it to keep an audience engaged it has to maintain an extraordinary level of intensity. And while this production hits some truly marvellous heights, at times it's also in danger of losing its audience.

The realisation of the opening scenes are simply magical - quite possibly the cleverest piece of theatrical trickery I've seen since the 'pool table' moment in "Black Watch". And long before a word is spoken, the silent exchanges at Old Hamlet's funeral give a sense of what the cast and creative team are capable of delivering.

And then we meet Grant O'Rourke's Hamlet and much of the energy and creativity built up is quickly dissipated. While later in the play O'Rourke puts his stamp on the role, his early scenes lack any defining approach. He's also frequently left very static on stage, which is less than conducive to keeping the audience engaged. My usual response to the character of Hamlet is one of sympathy tempered with frustration, but here I found myself irritated by a sullen teenager in the way I usually am by Romeo and Juliet. It's very difficult to envisage this Hamlet as a man loved by the people. It isn't until after the interval that O'Rourke really brings the character off the page, but when he does, it is to great effect.

David Tarkenter makes an excellent Claudius, giving him a sense of steely hardness that convinces both as traitorous brother and gangland criminal. Ali Craig's portrayal of Laertes shares that element of danger while he also successfully creates a refined Rosencrantz. Emily Jane Boyle's take on Ophelia didn't make much of an impact until her breakdown, but this was handled well and she also gave a delightful turn as one of the gravediggers. There was strong support from the rest of an impressive cast - with Dave Anderson particularly shining as Old Hamlet and the chief gravedigger. As you'd expect, many roles are doubled up and for the most part it works well, but the decision to have Alan Steele play both Polonius and Ophelia's doctor was baffling when several other cast members would appear to have been available for the role. His return to the stage so quickly after his 'death' without even a white coat to signify his new role resulted in several puzzled whispers in the audience.

As well as the magnificently stylish opening scenes, director Michael Emans has other ingenious set pieces up his sleeve including an entertainingly rhythmic card game, the suggested use of an online CCTV system to eavesdrop on Hamlet's conversation with Ophelia and some nice touches with the soundtrack. We also get some lovely additional emphasis given to the banishment of Glaswegian Hamlet to England. But there are also moments which let the production down - two of the most obviously pulled stage slaps we've seen in a long time and a disappointing foil fight.

The flashes of brilliance and strong ensemble lift this above a standard performance of the play, but it needs just a few more of them, and a Hamlet that delivers a more instantaneous impact. Then it would be something a bit special.

Hamlet has completed its run at Eastwood Park Theatre where we saw it. It continues to tour extensively throughout Scotland until March 17th.
Image used with permission