Hamlet – Review – Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, York

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By Ela Portnoy, July 2019

Sometimes audiences like plays for surprising and unforeseen reasons – and that is the case with director Damian Cruden’s Hamlet at York’s pop-up Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre. Rather than wallowing in the heavy atmosphere that we usually anticipate from another Hamlet, this production leaves the audience strangely tickled. A sprinkling of gags, double-entendres, and even a bit of slapstick brightens up what might otherwise have been a rather laborious matinee.

The theatre opened for the first time last summer (2018) as a modern imitation of an Elizabethan theatre, with four repertory performances of Shakespeare plays. It was such a success that this year the company, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, who are also responsible for York’s Winter Wonderland, has set up another venue in Oxfordshire. There is a strong emphasis on tradition, and it certainly comes through in the performances.

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“Something a little more adventurous”

All characters are as you would imagine from a standard, RP-accented, Elizabethan costumed ‘this is Shakespeare!’ production. There is nothing new or surprising in the acting, the staging or the direction. All the iconic speeches are delivered precisely as you would expect them to be delivered.

Much of the dialogue is casually thrown away, as though extraneous – which is tantamount to sacrilege. Although this perhaps gives room and time for the leading actors to find a little more depth in their characters – Hamlet (David Oakes), Ophelia (Serena Manteghi), Horatio (Clare Corbett) and Laertes (Marcello Cruz) are good – and even poor old Rosencrantz (Wreh-Asha Walton) and Guildenstern (Cassie Vallance) have a little flavour, but you do end up wishing for something a little more adventurous. The direction as a whole is unimaginative, short of any idiosyncratic slant.

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What does work is the humour. Since the audience are not particularly invested in the characters or their deaths, they laugh. It may not be classical tragedy, but there is some freshness in the comic relief. There is something nice in the classically funny sections, like the actors’ re-enactment of the murder or the gravediggers’ banter, but there is also unexpected humour in some usually serious sections, like in Hamlet’s question to Laertes, ‘Would you eat crocodile?’

The most successful aspect of this production are the costumes, which are very detailed, very elaborate, and often, very funny – including some striking cod pieces. Generally, the costume changes highlight character development, and the Elizabethan-cum-modern theme is created with nuance. There is also a very striking contrast between the monochrome of the leading characters and the colourful costumes of the comics.

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The company are not hamstrung by tradition – a woman is lined up to play Henry V in the coming weeks – but this is a very standard Hamlet, and a wordy one at that (it cashes in at just over three hours). It’s obvious to say that traditionalists – and Shakespeare has many – will love it.

Still, there is something pleasant in going to Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, sitting on the ground and watching costumed people parading on the stage. Some traditions, it seems, are well worth persevering with.


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