To bring any Shakespeare play to the stage in just over an hour seems a tall order but the RSC Young People’s Shakespeare manages this with a brilliantly acted and intelligently abridged version of Hamlet by Bijan Sheibani and Tarell Alvin McCraney.
There was genuine audience confusion at the very beginning as performers come out onto the stage and then move down into the seating area. However, along with encouraging the audience to keep chatting for a while longer, this puts the young audience at ease as the play begins.
Hamlet is a play about young people at its core, and this particular version certainly concentrates on this, editing much of the overtly political aspects. There’s much in Hamlet that is relevant and appealing to young people: a doomed love affair, mental health issues, suicide, loss of a parent, remarriage, parental interference – familiar themes to many watching (young or old).
Jean Chan’s design is simple and director McCraney uses the full area of the stage throughout. A large dull grey curtain, hanging centrally, serves as a dramatic entry and exit point. Characters are often on stage when not directly part of the action, playing an instrument, the play’s use of music and sound is clever and atmospheric – from wetting glasses rims to using a bow on a guitar, and some simple vocals too.
Rosencrantz (Dyfan Dwyfor) and Guildenstern (Gruffudd Glyn) are a particular hit with the audience with a brilliantly timed comic double act, excellent characterisation, movement and voices.
The Players’ arrival is another comic interlude, with some audience participation, which slightly risks overshadowing the usual task of the Players – and what Hamlet has them reveal about his father’s death.
Dharmesh Patel and Debbie Korley as Hamlet and Ophelia are impressive throughout, but strongest in their madness. Hamlet seems to revel in the freedom of his madness, allowing him to reveal the truth about his father’s death and to begin to plot revenge. Whereas Ophelia’s descent to madness is devastatingly touching, Debbie Korley even looks like a child in her white nightgown; utterly lost in grief, it’s a poignant portrayal.
This version retains Shakespearean language, and the reaction of the audience shows that it is no barrier to enjoyment. I noticed a rapt and engaged audience throughout and am pleased to note that ‘abridged’ doesn’t mean over-simplified, rushed or in any way lacking in characterisation.