Creation Theatre’s fast-moving accessible productions of Shakespeare’s plays succeed as a great introduction to his work, yet make it fresh for the seasoned buff. Last year’s highlight was an eerie Macbeth, and the previous year a Dream equally magical and hilarious, both played in a woodland setting. Also last year, Creation began its residence at Oxford Castle with a Merchant of Venice that seemed determined to show the Bard’s funky or even chav side, with plenty of rock music and costumes borrowed from Footballers’ Wives.
The Castle again plays host this year and the courtyard is a fine stand-in for Elsinore, providing walls and battlements against which to act out the story of betrayal, murder and revenge within the Danish Royal family. Gari Jones’ production takes the process of sexing up Shakespeare further, with even more rock music and rather less of Shakespeare’s text than is necessary for clear storytelling.
Creation’s directors are past masters at making a virtue of the necessity of small-cast productions with much doubling and occasionally some characters entirely excised. Tom Stoppard famously reduced Hamlet to 15 minutes in Dogg’s Hamlet, with an encore of just three minutes! And here the entire removal of the travelling players who perform the play designed to “catch the conscience of the king”, redistributing their roles to Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to perform as amateur theatricals, could have worked well.
But the savage textual cuts that accompany this recasting serve to make it confusing. And to add to the confusion, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not simply hard to tell apart as a joke, but genuinely indistinguishable, both wearing identical skeleton suits throughout the action as if they’re taking part in a Dance of Death Masque.
Pepe Balderama, who plays Guildenstern and Laertes, and Alex Beckett (Rosencrantz, Marcellus and Gravedigger) are more than capable of changing characters. However, it seems hard to condemn them to portray Hamlet’s disloyal companions without facial expression, however good their physicality might be.
Portia Booroff gives a sexy, sympathetic portrayal of a Gertrude in her prime who loves her son but still needs the attention of Simon Poole’s commanding Claudius. But when Gertrude begins her speech describing Ophelia’s death, the vital words “Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes” are perversely cut.
So despite Gary Shelford’s creditable, virile Hamlet, Amanda Haberland’s clear-spoken, deliciously dreadlocked Ophelia and Gavin Molloy’s punky Horatio, and even though, on the night I attended, there was plenty of laughter, usually in the right places, from a youngish audience, perhaps both cast and audience are being short-changed by this short-form Hamlet.