All theatre requires a certain complicity between actor and audience, never more so than with such a well-known tragedy in which sometimes it seems as though every phrase is part of the national lexicon. Bill Buckhurst’s production plays with this, for instance by thrusting us in the billow of a curtain from being ordinary spectators of a play to Claudius’ court watching the double play-within-a-play with Hamlet and Horatio scanning our faces avidly for traces of guilt while hapless Ophelia sees only the man she has somehow contrived to lose.
Designer Jonathan Fensom uses mainly dun and earth colours with a back panel suggesting the winter sea, its grey-green a cloak for the menace of unseen rocks below. Only the ox-blood red of the draw-curtain, the patterned dull orange of Ophelia’s dress and Hamlet’s own cream casual “antic” attire provide contrast. The costumes are deliberately timeless within a post-Victorian context, so that swords do not appear to be an anachronism..
There are some very good performances, though Michael Benz in the title role does take time to warm himself into the part and bring us onto his side. Dickon Tyrrell is a commanding Hamlet senior, conscience-ridden Claudius and – as now seems to be a customary pairing – the first player. I liked Tom Lawrence’s thoughtful Horatio, a scholar pulled unwillingly from cloister to court through affection and Matthew Romain’s volatile Laertes (the doubling with Guildenstern carries its own implications).
Pedant and bore Polonius may be, but he is still the king’s chief adviser. Christopher Saul brings out both sides of this character and then transforms into the earthy gravedigger of Act Five. Peter Bray is a giggly Rosencrantz, flummoxed twice over when Claudius mispronounces their names on arrival at Elsinore, a commanding Fortinbras and a cringe-worthy Osric.
I would have preferred Miranda Foster’s otherwise well thought-out Gertrude to be a little clearer in her diction; she seemed happier as the player queen. It’s easy to make Ophelia into a passive doll, used by father, brother and lover for their own masculine ends. Carlyss Peer avoids this trap and her two-part made scene is intensely moving, just as she makes you believe that her love for Hamlet is genuine and not mere infatuation.