Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2
Now before you all go getting any ideas, my title quotation refers not to my feelings about Poor Players Production’s Hamlet, but rather to the set; a small stage surrounded by (incredibly realistic) soil, dirtied sheets sometimes lit up from behind, an atmospheric balcony above, and vine-enwrapped translucent pillars which seemingly magically silently slithered up and down between scenes to take us both inside the austere towers of Elsinore and outside into the muddy graveyard. The set design, by Steve Wright and Max Mulvany, is immediately arresting as you step into the O’Reilly Theatre at Keble College, Oxford. It’s then down to the actors and director James Watt to do the rest of the work in this, Shakespeare’s most famous play, and indeed perhaps the most famous play of all time.
The opening is certainly gripping, the balcony smoke-filled and the only lighting provided by the guards’ torches as they fix their glare on each person who enters with tense cries of “Who’s there?” From then on, this tension never really lets up, which it exactly what you want from Hamlet, a play characterised by treachery and fraught (to say the least!) relationships. Given this, and the lit-up, shadow-making sheets at the back, I was surprised this set feature wasn’t used that much; surely we could have seen every single person who spies on anyone else through it, yet it was used in this function only once. I liked, however, that it echoed the players’ dumb show, which was also done through shadow dance. Combined with the small stage, it was as though Hamlet and Gertrude and Ophelia and all the rest were also players in their own tragedy – as indeed they are – a small meta-theatrical reference that I appreciated (classic English student I know).
How can I go any further without mentioning Hamlet himself, played by Ieuan Perkins (who has very successfully collaborated with Watt and Poor Player Productions twice before). This was definitely, as it should be, the star performance of the night; it was he who everyone mentioned to me in the interval as a highlight and he deservedly got by far the loudest round of applause at the end. His Hamlet seemed one bordering on psychotic at points, but always rooted in realism. The often dreaded “To be or not to be…” was excellently done, a outwardly calmly considered thought process which clearly contained extreme turmoil inside.
The other standout performances for me were Ellie Lowenthal as Ophelia and Chris Connell as Polonius. The latter had perhaps an easier job of it, providing us with some much needed comic relief (until his death of course – no spoiler alerts here I’m afraid; the play’s been around for 400 years guys!), but this comic relief was well-timed and, importantly, actually made us laugh – always a good thing! – even if occasionally the words were a little stuttered. Lowenthal was particularly impressive, with Ophelia definitely not the easiest part to play sympathetically given how much she seems to rely on the men in her life. Yet Lowenthal had a sweet charm in the opening scenes with Connell and Gregory Coates playing a brotherly affectionate Laertes which got the audience on her side, so that her descent into madness was truly distressing. These scenes between the Polonius family were actually some of my favourites, with all three actors bouncing off each other so that they really seemed like a family.
The rest of the cast is certainly strong; Rosencrantz (Jonny Danciger) and Guildenstern (Felix Grainger) were believably fun-loving comrades; Ali Porteous and Mia Smith certainly made the most out of their small courtier and player roles; and Alex Hill, together with James Mace, were brilliant gravediggers – even that late on in the play, and with quite a few ‘Renaissance humour’ kind of jokes, they still got everyone in the audience laughing. Stan Carrodus acted very well as both Claudius and the Ghost. In the former role, he wasn’t nearly as ‘straight-evil’ as is usually portrayed, making the character much more sympathetic – at least to me – than I thought possible. As the queen, Gertrude, Clare Saxby had much of the same anxious appeal that she did when she wowed in A Doll’s House last year at the same venue. I felt occasionally she spoke a little too softly to be heard with ease, but the acting in the closet scene was certainly a highlight, and she pulled off the interesting directorial decision regarding her death with aplomb, staring at Claudius knowingly before gulping the poison down. As Horatio, Clementine Collett’s comradery with Perkins was excellent, although on occasion, particularly at the beginning, it was very hard to hear what she was actually saying, she was so passionate and emotional. The actress has a beautifully expressive face, but I feel that sometimes its constant changing almost becomes slightly too much. Her final speech, however, was absolutely her best moment, and, combined with some brilliant lighting and staging, left the audience slightly stunned! (in a good way)
This is a production of Shakespeare’s most famous play that is well worth seeing. The set design and Perkins as Hamlet are obvious highlights, but they could not carry the show on their own, and are supported by a strong cast and interesting staging. There are a few bugs that I felt needed to be ironed out, in that the music was occasionally loud enough as to be distracting whilst the actor were speaking, and the smoke machine seemingly went off at random moments – but perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention and these were deliberate directorial decisions referencing the script which I missed the meaning behind! The production is also long, even for Hamlet – I think around three and a half hours although I didn’t properly check – which I think is because Watt has included some, to me unnecessary scenes (like the Player King’s first, lengthy speech about Phoebus and things). This may be because Watt is an English student and therefore – like me! – after having studied a text thinks that every single thing is massively relevant and important to the plot, but I think maybe a step back would be wise in future.
To be honest, this production is worth going to see just for the fight at the end. The training I’ve heard Perkins and Coates were sent on certainly paid off, and the flash and bite of steel darting about the stage is intensely exciting. The remaining image, however, that stays with me (apart from the ending) is of both Ophelia and Hamlet, separately, in closely related, but separate scenes, playing at tightrope walking their way along the side of the mini-stage, carefully treading the balance between the small, claustrophobic, but raised floor of the court and the low, soil-covered open space below, the ground or “noble dust” to which, Hamlet reminds us, we must all return to be food for the worms.
Hamlet at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre by Poor Players Productions: 4/5 stars
N.B. All photos thanks to Daniel Cunniffe