‘Hamlet’ review: ‘a compelling performance’

By Rhiannon Green

Durham University Classical Theatre’s poignant production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet cleverly reinvents the play by reworking it into a modern context and exploring its psychological features. With a heavy focus on mental health, the play does not shy away from more challenging subjects, and instead sheds light on the ways in which the characters experience and respond to these central issues. The production takes place in City Theatre, a small, yet intimate setting, which allows for an immersive experience for the audience. Opening with an eerie combination of music and lighting, the dimmed setting of the stage gives it an unsettling atmosphere, and this a repeated feature throughout the entirety of the play.

the play does not shy away from more challenging subjects

The opening scene is effective in its pervading darkness and use of torches to establish the modern-day setting, and I was particularly impressed by the effectiveness of the sheet as a backdrop, through which the silhouette of the Ghost first appears. This sheet smartly plays with the sense of ambiguity in the play, and I felt that it was an interesting way of first introducing the Ghost. Later appearances of John Duffett’s Ghost are disturbing in nature, and certainly contribute to Hamlet’s visible madness through the exchanges between the two characters. The production team additionally make good use of the venue, with the Ghost’s yelling from the back and Ophelia’s interaction with the audience being particularly engaging.

Despite its dark themes, the play does provide some comic relief

Newspaper-lined walls make up the set of the action, and the minimal use of stage props is effective in that the focus is solely on the characters of the play and their actions. Ophelia’s madness is traditionally depicted, with Amy Porter expressing the suffering she experiences in a touching manner. Whilst Ophelia is not the main focus of the play, great care is taken to make her influence apparent, as evident in Hamlet’s key ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, for which she is present, yet oblivious to. It is these subtle stage directions that allows for easy transitions between scenes.

Despite its dark themes, the play does provide some comic relief, most notably in the form of ’s Polonius, and later Jack de Deney’s Gravedigger. This establishes a balance between light and dark comedy, yet does not detract from the overall sombre mood of the play. Whilst the omission of certain scenes is unfortunate – as I would have liked to have seen a heightened presence of some of the more minor characters – it is an understandable decision due to the length of the original play, and the story remains clear and impactful.

I found Ginny Leigh’s Hamlet to be very convincing and emotional

Mental health is a topic that is rightly not shied away from, and it is evident that the production team have paid particular attention to this in the stage directions of the play, drawing parallels between Hamlet’s madness and schizoaffective disorder. Incorporating a more modern twist, several features of contemporary life are present, most notably the mobile phone, which is efficiently used by Ophelia and later Hamlet to reflect a distracted state of mind. Hamlet’s first soliloquy is performed with the prop of a container of pills, a clear hint at the possibility of suicide which successfully establishes the tone from early on. I found Ginny Leigh’s Hamlet to be very convincing and emotional, and appreciated the way in which the wardrobe changes reflect the gradual deterioration of the mind. Hospital gowns and the wheelchair make the nature of madness stand out in a unique sense, and the ominous and unnerving presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their synchronised speech is unlike anything I had seen before.

Despite the play understandably being cut down in length, the main features of the plot are successfully conveyed and enjoyed by the audience. The ease with which Hamlet fits into a modern-day setting illustrates not only the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work, but also the genius of the production team in being able to transfer the play to a contemporary setting, and the talent of the actors in delivering such a compelling performance.

Tickets are still available to buy for performances on the 15th and 16th February at 7.30pm at the City Theatre, Durham.

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