Stepping nervously forward into the dark to the sound of drums and cymbal crashes, anticipation muddles with the damp, rank smell of a crypt before the action begins. And boy, is there a lot of action – it is after all a virtually uncut three-and-a-half-hour version of Hamlet. Underground. In a crypt.
Once your eyes have adjusted to the gloomy lights and flickering candles, and your nose to the foist, you’re presented with a more familiar sight performed, as Tom Radcliffe’s Hamlet is, in sumptuously traditional costume.
Here the conventional ends, as it’s not a traditional space by any means and the Actors Temple company attempt to make good use of it, shepherding the audience through the crypt, following the ghosts in Hamlet’s head to the inevitable grisly finish.
With Pete Radcliffe’s atmospheric percussion and some nattily done lighting, it’s not just the temperature under ground that sends chills down the spine. But, while these scenes are very well done, there’s sadly an underestimation of the power of the herd and the breaks in play – in order to be formally ushered from chamber to chamber by candlelight – really does ruin the flow. Not to mention the times it turns into a virtual radio play when standing along the wall of a tunnel, as no-one can see without blocking the view of the person next to them.
But the cast is, on the whole, strong with stand out performances from Mark Wakeling as our beleaguered Danish prince, Ron Sudhir Scala’s meddling Polonius and Ellie Zeegan as ill-fated Ophelia. The Players deserve a special mention for their ability to drive up the energy in the room, lending buoyancy to an overly-long first act.
However, it is the length of this Hamlet, set as it is underneath the cold earth, which undoes it; at least one hour could be sliced off to stop eyelids drooping and toes freezing. If you’re prepared to shiver – dressed even as you are in thick jumpers and coasts – it’s an interesting mix of the traditional and slightly experimental but probably only for die-hard Shakespeare-ites willing to stay the full course.