After a painfully missed cue – during which Horatio (James Burgess) and his cohort cower in fear of a ghost (Arthur Kincaid) who was still nowhere to be seen – a few heart-stopping pauses – during which I was convinced Claudius (Gately Freeman) had forgotten his lines – and a series of very slow and identically blocked scenes, I was beginning to regret my decision to see what is possibly the greatest play in the English language. The Oxford Chamber Theatre’s production of Hamlet, performed at the Old Fire Station and directed by Arthur Kincaid, clocks in at three hours and fifteen minutes. Whilst the final hour was riveting, the shaky first two-thirds made for a trying evening.
Occasionally, I was confused as to whether I was watching Hamlet or a parody of Hamlet. Whilst David Jones’ portrayal of the titular character infuses some much needed energy and charisma into the play and Claudius (Freeman) is believable as a suave aristocrat, Gertrude (Sarah Dorsett), Ophelia (Kate Tulloch), and Laertes’ (Arthur Trickett) performances were all awkward and campy until the serious crises of the play hit. Polonius (Richard Ward), meanwhile, was played purely as a buffoon—which, though humourous, did not help me feel the drama or tension in the play. A few chuckles were even heard when Polonius finally kicked the bucket. Meanwhile, a number of humorous moments were off-set by a long string of forced, cringe worthy line deliveries. More confusingly, the beautiful suits worn by the men were worn alongside cheap, potato-sack dresses and tacky costume jewellery worn by the women. At one point during the usually dramatic third act climax – the play-within-the-play scene – Gertrude was wearing a bright red dress, Ophelia was wearing a bright pink dress, as the player stood on a lime green table cloth. I felt like I was watching a Valentine’s Day cartoon. It was incredibly distracting, and while I was beginning to enjoy the ridiculousness of the production, I was not sure “ridiculous” was the intended effect.
Tonally, the play was a mess; the first act ended with Hamlet humming a theme from Carmen and sticking a clown nose on as he pranced off towards his mother’s room. The silliness of the first two-thirds did not prepare me for the intensity of the final third after the interval, during which Hamlet, presumably only minutes after he had pranced around with a clown nose, assaults and almost rapes his mother.
Still, in the final hour, as characters shouted at and killed each other, the play managed to redeem itself with (finally!) authentic and raw performances, tempered by only tasteful humor.
Ultimately I enjoyed this Hamlet, but I wonder whether this says more about the enduring strength and poignancy of William Shakespeare’s play than about the prowess of this cast and director.
** (2 STARS)
PHOTO/ Old Fire Station Programme