With Conrad Nelson’s production of Hamlet, co-produced with Stoke’s New Vic, Northern Broadsides move further away from the performance style with which the company made its reputation. This is not necessarily a bad thing and productions by Nelson and others have enlarged Broadsides’ scope admirably, but this first attempt to bring the Northern European Broadsides approach to the core material of Shakespeare hits the mark only sporadically.
One element of the typical Broadsides approach that remains is the briskness and brevity of the production. The text, which plays at 2 hours 40 minutes stage time, is the result of extremely skilful editing by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson. The method is not to take out whole scenes or long speeches, but to remove sections so cunningly that you can’t see the join. However, it also changes the nature of the play which is so much about introspection and indecisiveness, not attributes to be brought out in brisk story-telling!
The emphasis on the Prince is inevitably reduced. Nicholas Shaw plays the main character in the story, not the focus of all attention. Conspicuously young, intense and earnest, but with bursts of schoolboy humour, he is not a tragic hero, but is convincing and immensely sympathetic. I am not sure that an equally callow Horatio is such a good idea.
Sophistication in production style brings its rewards (in the superbly judged and imaginative music by the director, for instance), but has its losses, too. Bold characterisation and plain Northern vowels may have become a cliché, but the non-Northernisation process has brought some under-characterised speech and performances. Too many of the range of challenging principal and sub-principal roles go for little here, the twinning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for instance, reducing them to one well-exploited gag. Phil Corbett and Andrew Price are excellent in a range of small parts, as is Andy Cryer, apart from appearing on the brink of an Eric Morecambe impersonation much of the time – probably as a result of the extension of Osric to cover other courtiers.
Old-fashioned virtues survive in the splendid Gertrude and Claudius of Becky Hindley and Fine Time Fontayne. Totally apolitical, guilty of no more than a wilful refusal to look beneath the surface, she is an unusually sympathetic Queen, well matched to a bluffly affable, narrowly devious King, with Fontayne’s robust honesty used to great, if deceptive, effect. Natalie Dew’s Ophelia benefits from the director’s inspired decision to begin life at court with her singing a swing version of the Valentine’s Day song (this is set in the 1940s, generally effectively). The mad scene thereby gets a context – and is all the more touching for it.
Northern Broadsides play such a variety of theatres that I am always tempted to pay a second visit to see what can be almost a different production. I certainly will in this case, especially as Lis Evans’ set of ramps and platform seems to leave too little space on the Stephen Joseph stage.