first night


Sam Westwood watches Castle Theatre Company tackle Shakespeare's most iconic play.

 ‘Hamlet’. Just say the word and it clunks to the floor like a literary tombstone, weighty with seriousness, worthiness and respectability. It’s a pretty hefty challenge for both actors and audiences alike. Castle Theatre Company seems to revel in this challenge. The result is a ‘Hamlet’ which succeeds spectacularly in certain respects, but which also has  some significant problems.

The acting performances were very strong indeed. Theo Holt-Bailey gave an exceptional performance in the title role, showing consummate skill in tackling the massive range of emotions required to play the part of Hamlet. His energy and physicality were truly exciting to watch, and he was able to give a real depth of feeling to his soliloquys. He also seemed to be word perfect throughout the entire performance – this alone is an astonishing achievement given the vast number of lines. Quite simply, he owned the stage, as Hamlet must. Another truly excellent performance was Jenny Walser’s endearing portrayal of a naïve and vulnerable Ophelia. In particular I found her performance in the scene where Hamlet callously rejects Ophelia’s love to be intensely moving. A strong relationship between her and Laertes (Andrew Shires) was established from the very start, which added emotional weight to the later events of the play. Theo Harrison’s comedic performance as Polonius, meanwhile, immediately won over the audience’s affections. Harrison had an effortlessly strong stage presence throughout, and energised every scene that he was in. Credit must also go to Lydia Feerick for her role as a solid, dependable Horatio, and to Tristan Carman for a suitably oily Claudius.

Kate Barton’s production is a very traditional one, with extravagant period dress and a minimalist stage setup. I gained the distinct impression that if the production were to be televised, it would appear on BBC 2 at 9pm on a Sunday with plenty of national treasures starring in it. This is no bad thing at all. We are, of course, so used to seeing Shakespeare updated to modern times that to produce a version of ‘Hamlet’ as traditional as this one is a bold creative decision. Traditional productions like this require an excellent eye for subtlety and detail, and Barton demonstrates this quality effectively. She has managed to ensure that her cast give real meaning to the Shakespearean language, and under her direction characters demonstrate interesting nuances subtleties in their gestures and the way they use the space on the stage. The use of live music played on the harp and cello throughout the performance was a lovely feature of the production. This again proved the effectiveness of subtlety, particularly in the musical accompaniment to the Ghost scenes where a haunting atmosphere was created by long, melancholy notes played on the cello.

There was one big problem with all this subtlety, though, and this was the fact that a lot of the audience weren’t able to appreciate it because of the nature of the Town Hall setting. The venue was in many ways a great strength of the show and really added to its historic atmosphere. But the acoustics were quite poor, and the fact that the seating was all on one level meant that those near the back couldn’t see what was going on. To combat these challenges, it would be advisable for all of the actors to project more and really focus on clear diction. I was in the front row and so I didn’t miss any lines, but quite a few of the people I spoke to sitting further back found it a real struggle to follow what was going on at times.

There were also some problems with the production itself. I found it to be a little unbalanced; whilst I was impressed by the first half of the show, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the second. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was wrong, but it definitely felt as if the energy dipped significantly. Certain scenes – for instance, the scene where Ophelia goes mad, or when Claudius plots with Laertes to kill Hamlet – simply required more intensity. Luckily the energy returned for the finale, and Shires and Holt-Bailey delivered a brilliantly exciting swordfight. Another problem, which probably contributes to the energy dip in the second half, was the overall length of the performance. I couldn’t tell exactly how much of the script was cut, but this version certainly seems to have contained more material than most of the productions of ‘Hamlet’ I’ve seen in the past. Kudos to Castle Theatre Company for including the sub-plot involving Fortinbras (which is often cut from ‘Hamlet’ productions) but I’m not sure that it adds much to the play apart from a few extra minutes.

Problems aside, this is definitely one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in Durham, with some exceptional acting performances, and I thoroughly recommend going to see it. Just make sure you try to get a seat near the front. 

6 February 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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