Review: Hamlet

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As we stumble into the festive season, many among us will at some point find ourselves slouched deep beneath a heavy woollen blanket. Perhaps our cheeks will be wintry, or we will be inhaling the deep aromas of a steaming mulled wine when we begin to settle down to a Christmassy mystery. It is fitting, therefore, that I should attend Castle Theatre Company’s production of the greatest Christmas mystery, performed in the Norman Chapel. Rarely has Shakespeare’s Hamlet been performed in a more fitting venue than this slightly subterranean Medieval kirk in the gullet of Durham Castle. Yet, spanning just 10×20 metres with six central stone columns, the irony of this holy arena was not lost as I settled down to watch a drama about a person tormented by the confines of life and God’s “canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”.

While not presenting some of the challenges of larger spaces, the intimacy of the chapel certainly will have presented its own challenges, allowing for closer audience inspection and scrutiny. The cast, ably directed by Niamh Kelliher, rose to the challenge. Complemented by lighting which threw their arena into chiaroscuro relief and a series of aural vignettes the cast was able to paint a palette of memorable tableaux, like little postcards for the audience to take home. The most notable of these being the funeral of Hamlet’s lover Ophelia (Harriet Fraser) who was delicately laid and beset by candles of mourning. She had previously been blown fragilely around between the whispering rhymes of The Lady of Shalott and a Pre-Raphaelite mixture of haunting and hapless, an ultimately devastating elegy. In this production, Ophelia’s victimhood starkly echoes ’s portrayal of Hamlet and deeply contrasts Claudius (Daniel Vilela) and Polonia (Bella Chapman), both of whom play their respective characters with terrific poise and presence that is to be expected of the elderly characters in the drama.

Complemented by lighting which threw their arena into chiaroscuro relief and a series of aural vignettes the cast was able to paint a palette of memorable tableaux

There appears to have been a direct and concerted effort to emphasize, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might put it, a kind of symbolic violence that exists between the older and younger generation. On the one hand, Amar plays a Hamlet that never stands straight. The holistic impression that Amar masterfully conveys is one of a wounded, pitiable Hamlet who is subjected to victimhood as a cultural inheritance. In a Danish court which standardizes primogeniture, he inherits his Father’s anguish and order to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”, in much the same way that Laertes (Tom Corcoran) is later corrupted to satisfy Claudius’ expedient ends. It is notable, however, that as the dead King issues his ultimatum, Amar’s Hamlet cowers woundedly in a fetal position on the ground. Her portrayal is one imbued with a deep emotive resonance, even shedding a tear during the “All you host of heaven” soliloquy and unarguably emphasizing Hamlet as a victim of a family inheritance.  While the contemporary era is by no means quite so rigidly gerontocratic as Shakespeare’s Elizabethan one, it is almost undeniable that there still exists disharmony in inter-generational dialogue (where such dialogue even exists) and as such to emphasise this theme strikes a telling cord.  

Hamlet is a problem play about the fundamental difficulty of action. He is a wretch tormented by the inadequacies of method and agency, hence the contrast between the careful heuristic of his play-within-a-play: “The Thing in which to catch the King,” and his frenzied and accidental stabbing of Polonia. He is beleaguered by the impotence of his own conviction.

The holistic impression that Amar masterfully conveys is one of a wounded, pitiable Hamlet who is subjected to victimhood as a cultural inheritance

After seeing this production, it is clear that Amar is a capable actress who plays Hamlet toward the more anti-heroical end of the spectrum that is justified within the script. At points, however, it would’ve been nice to see a Hamlet that was perhaps slightly less turbulent, either more tender of touch in his haptic interactions or more introspective during his moments of reflection. A consideration of either nuance could have helped to lay bare Shakespeare’s intellectual torment, as occasionally the poetry was rushed.

That being said, Hamlet is renowned as arguably the most challenging role in English theatre for a reason. He is ineffably rich in complexity and is a role which constantly invites revision from actors, audiences and critics alike. No one person can ever hope to resolve the ambiguities thrown up in the Bard’s treasure trove of human detritus and as such Castle Theatre Company should be commended for delivering this glorious Christmas mystery!

Image credit: Castle Theatre Company

2 thoughts on “Review: Hamlet

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