”Hamlet” at Bristol Old Vic – review

Billy Howle in Hamlet
Billy Howle in Hamlet
© Marc Brenner

Out of all the characters in dramatic literature, it is said that Hamlet evolves most to suit the actor playing him. Whatever the mood or the temperament of the actor, the sweet Prince of Denmark will take shape to fit the actor. It is also a part that feels impossible to fully explore in any one production, with so many different colours and versions of the role within Shakespeare’s writing, no actor can hope to get to grips with all of them.

Billy Howle, one of the rising stars of the industry, and trained and shaped in Bristol, is an interesting if not revolutionary Hamlet; at his most involving in his melancholy, a young man who sits rather than stands, playing cassettes of conversations past, trapped not to feel the present. He is a quicksilver thinker, the words tumbling out almost faster than he can speak them, a man whose mind is working too fast for the court around him. The tears flow fairly consistently in the early scenes, replaced later on with a caustic, venomous wit. Howle lands these contrasting moods but is less the man of action and anger. There is something rather muted about his return to Denmark after England that doesn’t quite stick. It’s a solid essaying of the role that never fully generates sparks, which can also be said of the production as a whole.

Director John Haidar provided a thrilling Richard III at Bristol Old Vic a few years back that felt fresh and urgent. His Hamlet is clean and clear mostly, stripped of extraneous props and characters (so long Bernardo, we hardly knew thee) to ensure a swift three hours playing of the longest work in Shakespeare’s canon. With designer Alex Eales’s monolithic brutalist design (it partly reminded me of Denys Lasdun’s NT building) of Elsinore creaking around, the actors mostly use the forestage as an empty space in which to tell the tale. This has its advantages and disadvantages.

Truth to tell there is some indifferent playing within the company that doesn’t help matters. For all the high sheen of Niamh Cusack as Gertrude who floats the verse through the space and Finbar Lynch who adds a second Shakespearean rotter to his year having portrayed Antonio in The Tempest recently in Bath, there are other performances that feel tense and with garbled verse speaking. Mirren Mack is affecting in her madness as Ophelia and Jason Barnett steals every scene he’s in as an officious, pompous, and much sharper than usual Polonius.

The gimmicks in Haidar’s production don’t really add up to much, adding a little shock value without illustrating the text more. It’s a production that seems to be stuck between two modes of thought, simplicity and bells and braces, and gets a little stuck between them both.

It’s certainly not a bad production, the joy of Hamlet is that there is always some fresh insight, some line that hits you in a new way, but it never excites in the way that Haidar’s hunchbacked King did. Howle’s Prince is an everyman in an everyday production.