Review: Hamlet (Leeds Playhouse)

Tessa Parr plays Hamlet in this new revival at Leeds Playhouse

Simona Bitmate (Ophelia) and Tessa Parr (Hamlet)
Simona Bitmate (Ophelia) and Tessa Parr (Hamlet)
© David Lindsay

The team behind this Leeds Playhouse production of Shakespeare's ultimate (dare I offer overrated) juggernaut has set out to find a fresh angle, and they've come up with a bold, imaginative take in which Tessa Parr doesn't only play Hamlet as a man but as a woman, something which has rarely been attempted. As cast member Simona Bitmate playing Ophelia points out, this has a 'knock-on effect which informs and affects the characters and absolutely everything else' in the play. Polonius and Horatio are also played by women, Susan Twist and Crystal Condie, and for those naysayers who are suitably poised to swoop prematurely, not for a minute is this aspect of the production in any way unconvincing.

Here, the longest of Shakespeare's plays is thankfully taut and fast moving, and there had to have been some forensic script work and significant cuts involved to make sure everything aligned to the interpretation. There is certainly no messing about; Guildenstern, for example, is given the boot entirely. All this might have the traditionalists spluttering Chianti, but Shakespeare's plays we know flourish with such re-shaping and the boundaries can keep being pushed further.

From the off there are inventive touches such as a perfectly judged wordless prologue to the conventional first ghost scene, an inspired addition. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite's vivid soundscape immediately evokes a war-torn modern day state where crackling vinyl and the rattle of guns elicit a real sense of threat. Hayley Grindle's two platform set features portentous masts with security cameras, reminding us the characters here are spies trying to procure answers by insidious means.

The verbal sparring between Parr and Joe Alessi as Claudius really starts to fizz a third of the way in, the former capricious, sarcastic, animated and brilliantly physical whilst the latter gradually discovers a darker rage. Twist brings an element of humour to her own machinations and it's good too to see the main cast supported by a host of actors from the Playhouse's youth programmes.

It might be near blasphemy but the most absorbing sections come whenever the dramatic impetus is strong and when the actors' physical expression is the key feature rather than the Bard's famous deliberative soliloquies. The poetry is of course beautiful but is some of Shakespeare's most challenging, and I've always felt those who approach Hamlet less au fait with the text might lose their way when it gets contemplative.

Director Amy Leach guarantees the deliberation always quickly makes way for imaginative action and it is most fun to watch these actors when something is on the line: the play within the play is tense and triggers Claudius' anger, and Kate Waters' choreographed final fight scene is an exciting watch.

Even despite the famous 'inaction' of the world's most revered play, the nimble and balanced pacing make for an engaging few hours of theatre.