Hamlet – Review – Leeds Playhouse Pop-up Theatre

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By Sandra Callard, February 2019

The Leeds Playhouse is noted for its radically different interpretations of well-known dramas, and there is none more well-known, nay world-famous, than Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Director Amy Leach has given Hamlet a radical make-over that gives us four roles normally played by male actors being taken over by females. The three major roles of Hamlet, Horatio and Polonius, and the lesser role of the priest, are all feminised. Hamlet is a lesbian, passionately showing her love for Ophelia, Horatio is still Hamlet’s best friend and support, Polonius is Ophelia’s mother, and not her father, and a female vicar is easily accepted in our present day. The latter three gender changes do not marr the story in the least, and sit comfortably in Shakespeare’s immortal lines, but the metamorphosis of Hamlet is a game-changer of huge significance.

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Tessa Parr (Hamlet) and Darren Kuppan (Rosencrantz) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse

“Believable character”

Tessa Parr is a talented young actor who moulds Hamlet into a believable character who shows neat flashes of humour and joie de vivre, and Act One is a tentative pleasure that suggests ultimate success. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia (Simona Bitmate) is clear, and her strong and enduring friendship with Horatio is cleverly and movingly apparent. Horatio is played convincingly by Crystal Condie as she fights Hamlet’s corner throughout the play and supports and agonises with him to the end.

I loved the whole performance of Susan Twist as Polonius. A seasoned and experienced actor, Twist’s expertise is clear and firm in her portrayal of a mother who is worried as to the way her daughter’s romance with the royal Hamlet is evolving. She invests a wry humour into Shakespeare’s words which give them a touch of familiarity and common sense that we can identify with.

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Susan Twist (Polonius), Joe Alessi (Claudius) and Dan Parr (Laertes)

“Peerless words”

Hamlet is a Greek tragedy of terrifying proportions, and as Pandora’s Box is opened with the appearance of the ghost, Act Two begins to take on a frantic and slightly dilettante appearance that’s somewhat at odds with the splendid opening scene. I felt the whole thing was slipping into a welter of juvenile emotion by Parr, as the famous soliloquies of Hamlet were trotted out ad infinitum, minimising the expected and necessary spell-binding effect of Shakespeare’s peerless words.

Praise, however, for the wonderful Pop-Up Theatre in use until the renovations to the new Leeds Playhouse are complete. The stage and backdrop are clever and effective, and the actors are but an arm’s length from the audience. I love the lighting and the sound effects which cleverly convey the drama of the story as the tale moves to its dramatic and fatal ending.

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Robert Pickavance (Ghost) and Tessa Parr

“Brave and innovative”

The role of Hamlet is a gift from the gods to any actor. The play contains a massive percentage of the quotations, maxims and cliches that are still in general use after four hundred years, but it also contains the longest and most arduous role in Shakespeare for an actor to tackle, even the most experienced. Parr’s voice is not strong enough to convey the mounting horror of the events on stage, and thus the exquisite meaning of the words is weakened also.

This production is brave and innovative, and succeeds in many parts, with the entire cast working their socks off, but the elusive and beautiful joy of Shakespeare’s words are dimmed when, after a promising start, the heavy and intricate crescendo of the drama finally beats them.

images: David Lindsay


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