Mid-Year Theatre Review 2017

As we are now well in to July, my mid-year theatre review is well overdue. 2017 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year of theatre and there is still so much more to come (I’ll talk a bit about that at the end). I already anticipate my top ten of the year will be a difficult selection, so at least this way, more of the productions I’ve loved in 2017 will make it on to at least one of my lists!

So, these are the current highlights of my theatre year. They are in no particular order, as I always finding ranking productions that way quite difficult, unless something stands head and shoulders above the rest.

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1. Hamlet (Almeida / Harold Pinter Theatre)

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This production of Hamlet was probably my most anticipated show of 2017 and I’m thrilled it not only lived up to my expectations, but exceeded them, so much so that it’s probably my favourite Hamlet, a crown that has been Mr Tennant’s ever since 2008. It’s simply because Robert Icke’s decisions with the text and how to stage certain scenes is fresh and innovative. Watching this Hamlet had me experience the story and the motivations of certain characters in a whole new light. Thrilling, exhilarating and incredibly emotional, it’s ensemble cast are superb and it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve ever seen on a stage. You have until 2nd September to see it. Go, go, go! Read my first review of this production here.

2. An Octoroom (The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

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I bought a ticket to An Octoroom after reading so much praise for it on Twitter from theatregoers whose opinions I value more than any professional critic and I’m so pleased they brought it to my attention. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s play was the complete theatre experience – surprising, inventive, powerfully emotive, yet funny in places too. The cast were superb (especially Celeste Dodwell as Dora) and the staging truly brought the play to life in the intimate space of the Orange Tree. I would love to see this have another life somewhere in the West End.

3. Dear Evan Hansen (Music Box Theatre, Broadway, NYC)

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Besides Hamilton, this is probably the most talked about show in New York at the moment and I was taken by surprise by how moved I was by it. It’s an emotional story about feeling alone, wanting to belong and giving people a hope that if they reach out, someone will help them and Ben Platt’s central performance is one I will never forget, so full of raw emotion, not to mention an impressive vocal. I don’t have the soundtracks to many musicals, but I listen to this one quite often. Read my full review here.

4. The Little Foxes (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Broadway, NYC)

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I was unable to see both versions of this play, in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate the roles, but despite this, it remains one of the strongest productions I’ve seen so far the year. I chose to Cynthia as Regina and Laura as Birdie and I wasn’t disappointed. Nixon was truly cold and calculating in the role, while Linney brought the tragedy of Birdie’s life to the stage. With a beautiful set and a strong ensemble, particularly Richard Thomas as Regina’s husband, who no doubt would have been happier with Birdie, this was a joy to watch. It would be lovely to see this play come across to London soon.

5. Angels in America (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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I have a second trip to this epic two play event next month and I certainly cannot wait to experience every moment of it again. Told across 8 hours, this seminal play is certainly not an easy one to watch, but its story is one that we should all see. The cast is one of the finest you could wish for, with Denise Gough bringing yet another raw and stunning portrayal to the stage, together with Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey and James McArdle. However, it was Andrew Garfield that blew me away as Prior Walter, a character so full of life, whose journey is the axis of the story. It will be a production talked about for years.

6. The Ferryman (Royal Court Theatre)

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Jez Butterworth has already established himself as one of the best playwrights we have and he follows Jerusalem and The River with another powerful story, set in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981, which weaves The Troubles in to the story of one family and its struggles. Paddy Considine’s stage debut is certainly impressive and his chemistry with Laura Donnelly shines off the stage. You will laugh, cry and probably gasp before the three hours of The Ferryman has passed. Buy your tickets for its West End run (until January 2018) now.

7. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

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There are only two words really needed to explain why this production is on the list – Imelda Staunton, who is utterly outstanding as the acid-tongued Martha! To be fair though, that doesn’t do justice to the other fine performances (especially Conleth Hill as her weary husband George). There was something darkly entertaining about watching Martha and George tear shreds off each other and some of the sharp, biting dialogue had me laughing out loud, even as I grew more and more uncomfortable. I can imagine it’s easy to overdo the dramatics in this play and yet director James Macdonald’s production didn’t do this. In fact, in a frightening way, it feels very believable. Read my full review here.

8. Consent (Dorfman, National Theatre)

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Another success from the National this year was Nina Raine’s latest play, which focused on the powerful subject of rape and consent, in the context of a group of criminal barristers, whose professional and personal lives become caught up in what is a difficult topic to think about. Intelligently written and superbly acted by its cast, I was gripped by Consent from start to finish and wish I’d had the chance to see it twice.

9. Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)

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A second, but fully deserved, entry for Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins is a play that has such a powerful end to Act One that the programme has a sealed spoiler section! I’ve already seen this twice to fully appreciate the sharp, biting dialogue, which makes you laugh one minute even when you shouldn’t, before making you gasp the next. You have until Saturday to catch it if you can. Read my spoiler-filled review here, or the spoiler-free one here.

10. Shirley Valentine (UK Tour at Lyceum, Sheffield)

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A trip with my parents to the theatre to see this revival of Willy Russell’s production surprised me for the simple fact that I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Effectively a one-woman show, in which Jodie Prenger brought the iconic Shirley Valentine to life, it made me laugh, but was also rather moving too, as this older woman bravely reaches for a fresh start in life. I left the theatre with a huge smile on my face and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

 

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Special mentions so far this year also need to go to the continued magic of Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, whose original and new cast ensure the Palace is the happiest theatre atmosphere in town, The Glass Menagerie, which I managed to see before its run ended and a NYC return trip to the glorious Groundhog Day!

Coming up is Ben Whishaw back at the Almeida in Against, the arrival of the Follies at the National (even more Imelda Staunton!), the opening of a brand new London theatre in the Bridge Theatre, whose first show Young Marx stars Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris, Apologia with Stockard Channing and the arrival of the Tony Award-winning Oslo, to name just a few.

Yes, there’s no denying the end of year review is definitely going to be tough in 2017!

 

 

 

Q&A with the cast of the Almeida Theatre’s Hamlet (23rd March 2017)

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Following last Thursday’s performance of Hamlet, the majority of the cast and the Associate Director Daniel Raggett joined the audience for an engaging and insightful Q&A. I had specifically booked to see this performance in order to be there for the talkback session and as this production has left me wanting to ask so many questions, I was thrilled that at least some were answered during the evening. It was also hugely impressive to see so many of the cast attend the Q&A after a four hour performance (I’ve included a full list of attendees at the bottom).

This post sets out the questions asked and the responses as fully as I can.

Who do they (the cast) think should have ruled Elsinore in the end?

The cast all agreed that this was a great question and that it was hard to choose, but that the key was that these are exactly the types of questions Shakespeare is asking and for us to think about.

The cast was asked about the choice of music within the production.

The assistant director said that he couldn’t speak for the director Robert Icke, but commented on how he works instinctively and so he imagines it started with one Bob Dylan song and progressed from there. He also referred to Icke working alongside Laura Marling in considering the music to be used in the production.

What were their thoughts about the perception of time and reality in the production?

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(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Angus Wright (Claudius) discussed this from Claudius’s point of view, saying that in his mind it’s all about Hamlet taking a different time to him, particularly with his grief for his father. Claudius just wants him to hurry up and get over it!

Luke Thompson (Laertes) spoke of how for his character it’s all about it being the time to leave at the beginning. He is keen to return to France. He also agreed that Robert Icke had taken a specific attitude to time and raised how purpose is a slave to memory, in that the more you let thought in to something and spend time thinking about it, the harder it is to act. I certainly agree with him that this is something that affects a number of characters in the play.

Barry Aird (Gravedigger / Francisco) spoke about the sense that the Gravedigger is almost dreamlike; there is a sense that he is almost out of a different time to the other characters and he referred to it reminding him of the barman in the film The Shining.

The cast were also asked about their thoughts on the striking image used for the poster and why it was chosen. 

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Andrew Scott agreed with the audience member that there were links to Ophelia in the image (through the use of flowers strewn across Hamlet on the T-shirt) and he said that, in his opinion, there are a lot of similarities between Hamlet and Ophelia. He certainly believes that they really do feel love for each other and yet are forced to work out their parents’ problems, not theirs. He spoke about how cruel this is. He also made the important point that there can be no tragedy if there is no love (something in my mind that many productions of the play get wrong). Lastly, Andrew also made the point that the image could also signify either Hamlet (that is, the young man or his father) and the sense of stepping in to someone else’s shoes.

A question was also asked about whether the cast think that theatre is still allowing people to come and be transformed by what they see, which in turn may enable them to use that energy to create real change in the world?

Andrew Scott spoke about how it is important to Robert Icke that his plays are for now and mentioned the line from Hamlet which speaks of “the age and body of the time.” He also said how the play itself is full of love and compassion and how all of the cast is trying to understand each other and serve those emotions.

Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia) commented on this issue too, making the important statement that if art stops being brave and starts apologising then we’re in trouble (well, she used a stronger term than that!) and that art can stretch over everything and unify us, which received a round of applause from the audience.

Jessica Brown Findlay was then asked about why we don’t see Ophelia’s face as she speaks her last line (the person asking the question really wanted to see it).

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Peter Wight & Jessica Brown Findlay (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Jessica discussed how they had played around with the scene and that Ophelia looks around at all the people there. Ophelia has wanted to be heard her whole life and so this is her moment to be heard and look at all of those in her life. She hadn’t really thought about the fact the audience couldn’t see her at the moment, although Angus Wright (Claudius) said how it’s great for the other actors, as they can see her in that powerful moment.

It was also raised that the production seems to have used scenes / lines from different versions of Hamlet, with specific reference made to the scene between Horatio and Gertrude (a scene which is only included in Quarto 1 (the “bad quarto”).

Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio) spoke about this scene coming from the “bad quarto” which is allegedly written by the actor who originally played one of the other smaller characters in the play. He commented that without this scene, you are left with the scene in which Hamlet recites a letter from Hamlet (one which Barry Aird (Gravedigger) said is quite dull) and so when Robert Icke found this scene in quarto one, Elliot was pleased that they could instead have a scene which puts Gertrude on team Hamlet and gives Horatio an ally at that point in the play.

Joshua Higgott (Marcellus) also spoke about the importance of creating a world that fits the production and in this one, a scene about pirates wouldn’t have made much sense. Barry Aird (Gravedigger) also made the important point that Shakespeare should be treated as if a new playwright and I agree with him. The key to keeping Shakespeare’s work alive and relevant is to make it fresh for its audience and this production certainly does that.

Reference was also made to the production’s modern parallels, such as the images of war and the cast were asked whether anything had any particular resonances for them.

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Andrew Scott as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Associate Director Daniel Raggett said that it is their job to ask the questions for the audience to think about, while Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) spoke about how she finds the setting of the production very domestic, which is important as it is about heart. She also commented that stories have the ability to span all political stories and events.

David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King) referred to the scene in which Hamlet sees the Poles defending the small patch of land and how those lines about war could apply to so many places in the world today.

Andrew Scott also talked about how wide-ranging a play Hamlet is, as it covers so much ground, from war, to grief, to love and so to drown it in one theme would be a tragedy. He also referred to people’s comments that the production was so long, saying that if it isn’t long, then you aren’t doing the play, as there is so much in it!

Sadly, we then had to let the cast escape, despite the fact we could all have spent so much longer asking questions about the production! The full list of cast members attending the Q&A alongside Associate Director Daniel Raggett was as follows: Andrew Scott (Hamlet); Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern); Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz); Luke Thompson (Laertes); Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia); Joshua Higgott (Marcellus); Marty Cruickshank (Player Queen); Peter Wight (Polonius); David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King); Barry Aird (Francisco/Gravedigger); Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio); Angus Wright (Claudius) and Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude).

Thanks very much to the cast and creative team of Hamlet for a brilliant evening. All productions photos used in this post are by Manuel Harlan.

Hamlet continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 15th April. Although advance tickets are sold out, seats occasionally pop up online and day seats are released each morning at 11 a.m, with returns also being a possibility closer to the show each day. The production is also transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 9th June – 2nd September (albeit with some cast changes). For more information on the West End transfer, see the Almeida’s website here and the ATG website here.

Theatre Review – Hamlet starring Andrew Scott (Almeida Theatre): devastatingly emotional, thrillingly original & impressive on every level

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Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and I’m always keen to see a new interpretation of this rich and powerful story. Over the years, I’ve never been quite as eager in advance of seeing it, as I was before my very first experience back in 2008 at the RSC. That was until the Almeida Theatre announced Andrew Scott would be taking on Shakespeare’s famous character in a production by one of theatre’s most exciting directors, Robert Icke. I knew this had the potential to be truly special and on Monday night, I was thrilled to discover that all my expectations had been met and surpassed!

The key for me has always been that a great production of Hamlet must have more than a talented lead actor. The whole cast and the vision of its director need to be strong enough to bring Shakespeare’s story to life anew for the audience and this production succeeds in bringing together brilliant actors throughout the cast and a talented creative team, who together deliver a truly devastatingly emotional and thrillingly original experience.

Before we talk about Andrew Scott (and there is much to say!), I therefore have to talk about some of the many other performances in the ensemble worthy of praise. Juliet Stevenson follows Mary Stuart (also at the Almeida) with a fantastic Gertrude. Too often Gertrude is left on the sidelines of the play, but not here. She is a fully realised, flawed woman. Thrilled with the idea that Claudius is attracted to her, she has been carried along by the passion of it and yet is still conscious of how Hamlet is suffering, in no small part because of her actions. The closet scene has always been a favourite of mine and in productions such a this, where Gertrude has a believable bond with her son, it is a joy to watch. Stevenson and Scott wring every ounce of emotion out of it and in a production where Hamlet feels truly capable of anything (frighteningly so in fact), the danger feels very real and Stevenson captures Gertrude’s fear for herself, as well as her heartbreak at her son’s mental state.

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Angus Wright (Claudius), Andrew Scott (Hamlet) & Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Interestingly, this production also places her firmly against Claudius before Hamlet’s return to Elsinore, as we see her realise and accept the King’s villainy when Horatio puts it in front of her. I have never seen such a scene included in Hamlet before and found that it made her choice to drink from the cup instead of Hamlet, a cup she knows with certainty to be poisoned, all the more tragic. Her last act is to show her loyalty to her son over Claudius.

The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is also given much more stage time than other productions I’ve seen, which gives far greater life and depth to their connection. Seeing her comfort a devastated Hamlet, who breaks down in her arms once they are alone after the wedding party scene was agonising, yet beautiful. It grounded their relationship in reality and was one of my favourite moments in the production, ensuring a greater emotional resonance to the tragedy of what’s to come. Jessica Brown-Findlay is a strong Ophelia, who has a truly loving relationship with her father, ensuring her spiral in to depression following his death is all the more poignant and heartbreaking. Her descent in to such despair is also handled sensitively. She isn’t a wild, whirling woman in these moments, but a young girl who has lost a father she adored and respected and at the hand of the man she loved.

Also and more so than in any other Hamlet I have seen, I found Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fascinating. For a start, they arrive much earlier than I am used to, which captured my attention! Hamlet has yet to “put on an antic disposition” when we first see them, suggesting that even before his father’s ghost appears to him, his behaviour is already causing concern. Not only that, but from the moment they arrive, there seems to be a tension between them and Hamlet, due to a potential love triangle.

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Andrew Scott (Hamlet), Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) & Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Amaka Okafor plays the female Guildenstern as a woman who clearly loves Hamlet and you have a sense that perhaps the two of them have a romantic history. Yet now it seems she is with Rosencrantz (played by Calum Finlay), which made for an interesting dynamic between the three. It also meant that certain lines carried much greater meaning, such as when Hamlet asks them to admit they were sent for if they love him, to which Guildenstern responds and also by giving Rosencrantz’s line “My Lord, you once did love me” to Guildenstern. Having two characters who are too often one-dimensional and marginalised actually catch my attention, is just one example of how Robert Icke’s production adds a fresh perspective to this well known story.

Angus Wright’s Claudius is a modern political manipulator. He is calm and collected and carries an air of suaveness that you can see would have turned Gertrude’s eye. I also didn’t believe for a moment that he felt any remorse for killing his brother, which became so evident in his “prayer” scene. He may not have the same commanding presence as actors such as Patrick Stewart had in the role, but Wright’s portrayal makes clear that the King is a threat to Hamlet, which is essential to maintain the underlying tension as the play progresses (and which I felt was lacking in Ciaran Hinds’s version).

Elliot Barnes-Worrell is a wonderful Horatio, who has a believable friendship and loyalty to Hamlet. Often their bond is lacking, resulting in a less satisfying, emotional ending, but not here. Luke Thompson’s portrayal of Laertes is also enjoyable. Laertes is often a weak link, yet Thompson ensures he is a character you sympathise with. David Rintoul’s Ghost was another performance I enjoyed. Although his initial appearance in front of Hamlet is quite eerie, he isn’t a frightening figure. In fact his interactions with Hamlet are much more affectionate than every other production I’ve seen and it only emphasises just what Hamlet has lost. In light of Rintoul’s portrayal, the choice to miss out the Ghost’s bellowing commands from below the earth (a moment I always find rather silly and certainly didn’t miss) was a wise one!

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The play within a play. Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

As you can see, I could say positives about this whole company (heck it even has the glorious Marty Cruickshank as the Player Queen!), which is one of its biggest strengths. It does not have weak links, allowing the play to sing and for Icke and his cast to try new and imaginative ideas with the material.

So, we come to Andrew Scott. I have been waiting for him to tackle Hamlet for years and he is superb. He is such a versatile actor and this is a performance that covers the entire spectrum of human emotion; one moment his Hamlet is filled with [frenetic energy], exploding with anger, frustration and grief, the next fragile and broken, seemingly utterly adrift in the world. He is also both hugely vulnerable and frighteningly dangerous, which was thrilling to watch. You believe Hamlet to be capable of anything, which provides the production of this 400 year-old play with a fresh tension and energy.

Scott’s ability with the text is also fantastic. He may occasionally be a little too loud, but he found emphasis and humour in lines that I’ve never seen before (and in one particular case regarding Hamlet’s continual fencing practice, addressed a line that has always annoyed me, with perfect comedy). I have always found him to be a truly soulful actor in every role (especially on stage) and every soliloquy was so full of raw emotion that he held the whole audience under his spell. I found his delivery of the “readiness is all” lines particularly heartbreaking. His is absolutely a Hamlet you will never forget.

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An utterly unforgettable Hamlet (Andrew Scott). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Indeed, on leaving the Almeida, I was most struck by how original an interpretation Robert Icke has created. Having seen most of his previous work, it is always thrilling and thought-provoking and yet I was still surprised by how his version of Hamlet had me seeing scenes I know so well in a different light, which is a rare treat. Hamlet is such a rich story, that directors and actors always have the scope to play with it if they dare and it was exciting to see that Icke and his cast have done just that.

I don’t want to spoil the cleverness of this production, but I will say that there are moments where a simple change leads to a whole new context for events that follow. The scene in which Hamlet considers killing his uncle as he is praying is one such example. The choices made on the Almeida stage in this scene were totally new to me and resulted in Hamlet’s crazed, frustrated, wild behaviour in his mother’s room making even more sense than usual, while proving that this Claudius is worlds away from the weaker portrayals of the character I’ve seen in other productions.

Hamlet’s sense of loss is always evident from the outset and yet here it is added to further through his immediate awareness of the fact he is potentially losing Ophelia too, following her father’s command that she stay away from him. In a production where we have already seen him break down in her arms, this is another blow to him and you feel the weight of loss on Andrew Scott’s shoulders. It’s another example of where just a couple of small changes impact on the emotional heart of the characters in new and interesting ways.

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Jessica Brown-Findlay (Ophelia) & Peter Wight (Polonius) in rehearsal. Photo: Miles Aldridge

As for Polonius (played by Peter Wight), he is usually portrayed as either a comical old fool, or for actors unable to capture the comedy, a rather dry and dull character. He may not be my favourite Polonius, but I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Wight’s version fits neither of these images. He is a loving father and indeed a useful adviser to the king and in the scene in which he is usually most comical – his conversation with Hamlet in which he is called a fishmonger, the production does not take the obvious and well trodden route of Polonius talking to himself or the audience. Instead, here he becomes a shrewd player in the surveillance world of Elsinore and it’s a wonderfully clever way to make the scene and the character feel fresh. The fact that Hamlet makes clear that he knows precisely what is going on too is also very well executed.

The use of newsfeed-style footage for the scenes involving the Polish army and Fortinbras is also a wise choice, as these moments, although necessary for the wider plot, can drag the pace down. By including them in such a modern way, enables them to serve the plot, without losing the audience’s engagement. For example, we need Hamlet to see the Polish army in order for him to deliver the soliloquy it inspires, but here the focus is able to stay on Hamlet.

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Director Robert Icke

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is ideal for this production. There are no huge, ornate sets, filled with lots of furniture, which needs moving on and off stage during key moments (yes, I’m looking at you Barbican Hamlet). Instead, it is a very stripped back stage space that reminded me very much of Icke’s Oresteia. Divided in to two sections, the front half is kept quite bare, with minimal seating, while a sliding door separates it from the back half, where events such as the wedding party can continue in the background, without distracting from the play’s biggest moments. This split stage is also used to beautiful effect during the play’s final moments, where the sense of death and its stopping of our time on the earth are so poignantly conveyed.

I also loved the music choices made by the creative team. More dramatic moments were accompanied by a throbbing beat, which added to the sense of time running out for these individuals, while other scenes were accompanied by songs which captured the emotional heart of the moment. I especially liked the musical choice taken during the fencing scene, which again was something I’d never seen before in this play. As for the running time? Don’t be put off by it. Yes, it’s long, but as with some of his other plays, Icke’s three part, two interval structure and pacing ensures that you are swept along until the final scene.

Simply put, this is how Hamlet should be – thrilling, dramatic, poignant, funny, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. With such a strong, visionary director and talented cast, it made me see the play with fresh eyes and engage with Shakespeare’s tremendous work in new and exciting ways. I am sure it will be one that is discussed and remembered long in to the future and although the 2008 RSC production will always hold a special place in my heart, this production is the only one I have seen since that could go on to become my favourite. I am already excited to see it again, which is exactly how a production of Hamlet should make you feel.

If you already have tickets, you are in for a treat. If you haven’t, make the effort to get your hands on one. I promise you, you will not regret it.

Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre runs until 15th April 2016. Although tickets have sold out, there will be day seats on sale each morning at the box office and it is also worth trying for returns a few hours before each performance. Running time is 3 hours 45 minutes (including two 15 minute intervals). For more information, visit the theatre’s website here

 

My Theatre Review 2015!

I can hardly believe it’s the end of the year already! Time to look back at another twelve months of theatregoing and reflect on what was brilliant, what was unexpected (whether in a good or bad way!) and what I wish I hadn’t bought a ticket for. Thankfully there aren’t too many in the latter category!

Starting with the numbers, I’ve seen 63 productions, of which I’ve seen seven more than once, giving a total of 76 theatre trips in 2015. Not too shabby, although still an amateur compared to others I know! Overall, it’s been a very strong year and the thrill of seeing a new play, visiting a new venue or seeing an actor I was unaware of grab my attention, remains just as addictive as in previous years.

Productions of the Year – My Top 10

Without further ado, here are my top ten productions of the year. Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree!

  1. Oresteia (Almeida / Trafalgar Studios)

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Perhaps a rather predictable number one this year is the Almeida’s new interpretation of Aeschylus’s 2,500 year old Greek tragedy. I missed it at the Almeida, but thankfully made it to the West End transfer. Simply put, this will remain one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen for a long time to come. Writer and director Robert Icke (now at the top of my must-see list) made such an ancient play current, while also delivering an exhilarating, powerful, intense and spellbinding production. The 3.5 hours flew by, as the whole audience seemed to hold its breath. Superbly acted, directed and designed, with set, lights and haunting sound combining to achieve something remarkable. It’s productions like this that remind me how incredible theatre can truly be.

2. Hello/Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre)

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This may not make anyone else’s top ten of 2015 but I adored this production of Peter Souter’s play, having missed it in 2014. Maybe it was my mood in February, but it tapped in to my emotions and was a story that truly moved me by the end (yes, I cried). Miranda Raison and Shaun Evans had a wonderful chemistry as they brought the story of the evolution of two people’s love for one another (even when they can no longer see it) over a decade to life in such a believable way. I’d see it again tomorrow if I could. Read my full review here.

3. Love’s Labour’s Won (aka Much Ado) (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

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I still find it criminal that this beautiful RSC production didn’t transfer to London. Together with Love’s Labour’s Lost they made a wonderful bookend of stories around World War I, but this was my favourite of the two. The set was gorgeous, the costumes sublime and the cast excellent, led by a brilliant Beatrice (Michelle Terry) and Benedick (Edward Bennett). Ed has grown so much since stepping in to David Tennant’s Hamlet shoes in 2009 and is now a leading man in his own right. He was charming, funny and cocky and I loved every moment, making this my favourite Much Ado to date (sorry DT!). The DVD is available if you missed it and you can read my full review here.

4. City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)

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I have a friend to thank for my ticket to this musical revival and how very grateful I am for her queuing skills! The songs were all fantastic and delivered with strength, confidence and power (where on earth is the cast album?!) and the design concept visually wonderful. I especially loved the use of black and white, against colour for the two worlds depicted and the strength of the cast was superb. Everyone made the whole production better, whether Hadley Fraser’s author, Tam Matu’s private eye or Katherine Kelly’s sexy black widow to name but a few. A truly impressive show and my favourite musical of the year.

5. Hangmen (Royal Court / Wyndham’s Theatre)

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Another production I managed to see on its transfer was Hangmen. I thought it was terrific. Martin McDonagh’s script is of the highest quality, filled with brilliant one-liners and exchanges and a twisting, turning story, during which  you never quite know where it is leading. The cast are all superb, especially David Morrissey, but the standout is Johnny Flynn as the mysterious southern stranger, whose motives are unclear, but who makes you feel distinctly uneasy. Combined with a fantastic set (not to mention that first set change) and this should certainly be one your 2016 list if you haven’t seen it already. Read my full review here.

6. Tree (Old Vic Theatre)

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My top ten of 2014 included my first experience of a production by Daniel Kitson and this year sees him back on my list with Tree. It was such a simple concept. Two men spend the duration of the play talking about their lives and what has brought them to be there (one waiting for a date, the other living high up in the branches!). Performed by Kitson and Tim Key it was funny, sad, inappropriate at times, but incredibly moving by the end and certainly made me think for a long time afterwards. Read my full review here.

7. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios)

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Seeing the return of James McAvoy to this venue, again directed by Jamie Lloyd, I had no idea what to expect from this play (last seen in London in 1968). My lasting memory of it will be how utterly bonkers it was, but oh what a joy to watch! A superb, satirical look at the upper classes of privileged families I was captivated for the entire performance. Then of course there was James McAvoy himself, whose performance was one of the best I’ve seen all year. He had so much to do – crazed, vulnerable, angry, affectionate, flirty and disturbing, as well as taking on so much physicality. A production and performance I will never forget. Read my full review here.

8. Farinelli & The King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse / Duke of York’s Theatre)

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I saw this new play by Claire van Kampen in both venues this year and I loved it each time. Part play, part music concert, it was one of the most enchanting and captivating productions I saw this year. Based on the true story that a famous singer who helped the depressed King of Spain in the 18th century, we were treated to the stunning voice of Iestyn Davies as Farinelli and the legend that is Mark Rylance. His King Philippe is one of a quiet disposition, but who is capable of moments of violent anger and intense sadness. He is also incredibly funny and I’d forgotten how funny this play was until I saw it again. Proving yet again that Mark Rylance on stage is something never to be missed, this was a gem of the theatre year. Read my full review here.

9. Rules For Living (National Theatre, Doorman)

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My first trip to the refurbished Cottesloe Theatre was to see this new play by Sam Holcroft and what a joy it was. I admit that it came at a time in the year when I really needed something to make me laugh and this ridiculous glimpse in to one family’s dysfunctional Christmas did the trick. I hadn’t laughed that much for quite a while. Seeing how our own internal rules govern our behaviour and responses to others, highlighted so cleverly through the gameshow style scoreboard was a wonderful concept and gave the audience the pleasure of knowing more than some of the characters. Plus the final food fight was brilliant! It’s just a shame this isn’t back at the National for Christmas! Read my full review here.

10. Husbands & Sons (National Theatre, Dorfman)

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Picking a final choice was quite difficult, but this tremendous new adaptation of three D.H Lawrence’s plays really did impress me (runner-up mention has to go to the RSC’s Henry V which I also very much enjoyed). Ben Powers’s play weaves the themes of all three plays together so perfectly, as we see the ongoing cycle, as women go from being the frustrated new wife unable to live up to the mother, to the mother being too protective and then jealous of the girl whom her son falls for, a role she perhaps once had herself years before. I loved seeing all three stories unfolding on stage at the same time and each was so well acted, containing some wonderful performances including Louise Brealey and Anne-Marie Duff. The staging and set were effective, suggesting each story occurring behind closed doors in one village and the use of the lightning rig to evoke a sense of the mine was a great touch. Crucially it’s a production I’ve continued to think about long after seeing it and one I would love to see again. Read my full review here.

Disappointments of the Year

There are bound to be some shows that sit at the bottom of the pile each year, but thankfully there haven’t been too many I’ve really disliked in 2015 and even those had aspects that I can appreciate even if they didn’t appeal to me. Having said that, my theatre year would have been fine had I not seen any of the below productions!

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  • How to Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre) – Nothing else could beat this Royal Court show to take the title of worst of 2015 for me. Ten minutes in, I knew this wasn’t for me and it didn’t improve. I can appreciate some of the ideas and Maxine Peake was (as usual) very good, but it remains 90 minutes I’ll never get back. Read my full review here.
  • Matchbox Theatre (Hampstead Theatre) – The concept of combining lots of little vignettes in to one production could have been entertaining, but too many of these pieces were just boring or not that funny. I did like the one about stage management as nocturnal animals and the member of the orchestra with barely any part, but overall this felt incredibly pointless.
  • Carmen Disruption (Almeida Theatre) – This is another production for which I enjoyed some elements, but as a whole it just didn’t work for me. There were some strong performances (particularly Jack Farthing’s Carmen and Noma Dumezweni’s moving portrayal of a mother estranged from her children), but I found myself wishing I was instead just seeing Carmen. Read my full review here.

Productions I Was Sorry To Miss

Despite my best efforts, I never see everything on my list each year and 2015 has been no exception. These are the ones I’m most sorry I didn’t see this year.

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  • Young Chekhov (Chichester Festival Theatre) – I heard such wonderful things about this triptych of plays, with its wonderful cast. I hope the rumours of a London transfer prove to be true!
  • The Wars of the Roses (The Rose Theatre, Kingston) – Another triple bill I missed was Trevor Nunn’s restaged histories, which included one of my favourite actors Alex Waldmann.
  • People, Places & Things (National Theatre) – I had a ticket and couldn’t go to this highly praised production. However all is not lost, as it transfers next year to the West End and thankfully leading actress Denise Gough does too!

Performances of the Year

2015 has been an impressive year for individual performances, across musicals and plays and it almost seems unfair to only highlight a few. Below are my top leading and supporting performances of the year.

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Leading

  • Imelda Staunton (Gypsy) – a truly incredible performance as Mama Rose Lee, Imelda brought everything to this role and the way she hit those huge notes was astonishing! Watch it on BBC4 on 27th December if you can.
  • James McAvoy (The Ruling Class) – as I have already said, his performance was in another league to most others this year. Captivating throughout.
  • Ralph Fiennes (Man & Superman) – I’ve never seen anyone speak as fast and fluid as Fiennes here. The time of this play flew by despite the long running time and his performance was magnetic and incredibly memorable.
  • Lia Williams (Oresteia) – Lia’s performance as Clytemnestra was astonishing. Both a woman of strength and vulnerability, seeing her finally take the revenge she had stored for so many years against her husband was so intense and her scream of relief and anger was spellbinding.
  • Tobias Menzies (The Fever) – This one man monologue play in the Mayfair Hotel was an intense story and one I still don’t fully understand, but Tobias Menzies was superb and it was a privilege to watch him.
  • Susannah Fielding (The Merchant of Venice) – Rapidly becoming one of my favourite actresses, she was superb as Portio in this RSC/Rupert Goold production.

Supporting

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  • Johnny Flynn (Hangmen) – The standout of this play, Johnny’s performance is unnerving and darkly entertaining throughout.
  • Mark Gatiss (Three Days in the Country) – This performance was full of humour and fun and the scene in which he attempts to propose while also doing his back in was utterly brilliant.
  • Judi Dench (The Winter’s Tale) – I love Judi and she is excellent in this Shakespearean tale, bringing a gravitas to the production and effortlessly speaking the Bard’s words.

Memorable Moments of the Year

Each year also brings individual moments, which remind me why I love going to the theatre. It’s these that make live theatre unique – no one else will experience that moment in quite the same way. Here are my top theatrical moments from 2015:

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  • The daring nature of The Vote at the Donmar – a very British comedy, which was wonderful to see live and then watch again as it transmitted in real-time on television on Election Night.
  • Ophelia’s final exit in the Barbican Hamlet – this was the most emotional moment of the Cumberbatch Hamlet for me. Sian Brooke’s Ophelia felt very real; truly broken by grief and seeing her break down at the piano and then turn and walk off up the slope in to the light, as if towards heaven, as Jon Hopkins’s score played, was incredibly powerful and visually and emotionally beautiful.

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  • The split-level ship set rising up during Treasure Island – I was a little disappointed by this National Theatre show, but the ship set rising up from the drum revolve was a wonderful sight.
  • The final moments of The Red Lion – I thought this Patrick Marber play was very good, but it was the power of the final few minutes that I will remember. So poignant and powerful.
  • Experiencing The Fever in a Mayfair hotel suite with Andrew Scott sitting at my feet – okay, so this is more a memorable audience moment for me, but seeing such an intense play, with the added experience of having Andrew Scott sitting at my feet is something I won’t forget in a hurry!
  • A stage full of inflatable sex dolls – Shakespeare and sex dolls were a combination I never imagined I’d see, but it actually worked in this Young Vic production of Measure For Measure! Unexpected and surreal.

So, that’s my round-up of my theatre year and hopefully 2016 will bring even more special productions, performances and memories. My recommendations for 2016 will follow in the next few days! Thanks for reading!

 

Theatre Review – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican

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Saturday night saw me return to the Barbican for my third visit to Hamlet and the first since press night. After seeing the very first performance, a preview in week two and now the show three weeks in, it’s interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. I was relieved that overall the show was much stronger, mainly in terms of the supporting performances.

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Sian Brooke as Ophelia. Photo by: Johan Persson

Sian Brooke’s Ophelia has grown in her role over the previews. I still don’t feel that there is a significant connection between her and Hamlet, but what I truly love about her portrayal is she’s not a mad whirling girl, but someone who becomes so broken by grief and loss. This is much more believable in my view, as we all suffer losses of varying degrees in our lives and it is more much relatable than someone dancing around manically. The use of snatched dialogue she has heard or overheard earlier during her “mad” scene is very clever and shows how those around her have been the cause of her emotional breakdown; the mock funeral she stages is very sad and truly brings home the tragedy of her situation and her final moments on stage remain the most moving and powerful of the show. The piano, the photographs and camera, the gorgeous use of light and Jon Hopkins’ Abandon Window music add to the impact and the moment she leaves the stage is visually beautiful.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,          , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/
HAMLET by Shakespeare, , Writer – William Shakespeare, Director – Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting – Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Anastasia Hille is much improved as Gertrude, bringing more substance to her presence on stage and to her relationship with her son. Thankfully the closet scene is stronger than it was in early previews. Again she excels in later scenes and the touch of her running after Ophelia is something I loved, as is the added detail of her dress (sleeves and bottom half) being clearly wet when she returns with news of her death. I always wonder about Gertrude’s presence at Ophelia’s death from her speech and what she did. Here you can at least believe she went in to the water herself to reach Ophelia. Unfortunately there is however still no chemistry between her and Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius. By the end she has shifted away from him, but for this to have more weight, you need to have seen a disintegration of their relationship. In this production there is never any real connection to begin with.

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Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes. Photo by: Johan Persson

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith remains the strongest ensemble actor here. He projects his voice to the whole audience and successfully conveys Laertes’ affectionate, caring relationship with his sister (their moment at the piano is tender and warm) as well as his potential for anger on returning to avenge his father’s death. It’s a shame he isn’t on stage more or have more scenes with Benedict.

Leo Bill is now a much better Horatio, but I think the weaknesses that still remain are due to the directorial choices. With the removal of the opening scenes we lose time with the character and due to the staging choices he is often so far to the side you forget he is there (for example, the play scene). For me, he should be more visible. Yes he is an outsider, but he is the loyal friend who should be seen to be by Hamlet’s side. Other productions have done this very effectively – the peak remaining Peter De Jersey for the RSC. I do however enjoy the choice to give him Getrude’s final line – in this production it is Horatio, ever the observer who announces that the Queen has been poisoned.

Jim Norton has improved as Polonius, although would such a wise man need to write his words of advice to Laertes down? Thankfully his death is also much better than the clumsy staging of early shows, but he still remains a bit dull, which is a shame when Oliver Ford Davies has shown how lively a character he can become. Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam are still sadly lacking as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They may be small parts, but I’ve seen actors bring them to life much more effectively. They seem totally irrelevant here and I can never picture this Hamlet having ever been friends with them. They aren’t assisted by the ridiculous decision to stage their arrival on the side balcony, which is only visible to part of the audience!

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Ciaran Hinds as Claudius. Photo by: Johan Persson

However, despite the improvements in performances, the biggest disappointment remains Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius. First and foremost his voice projection is still weak. You struggle to hear him in certain areas of the theatre. It may be a big space but I’ve never experienced actors struggling to make themselves audible at the Barbican before this production and I did note mics on some actors. His Claudius is also on the cowardly end of the spectrum. I’ve seen drunken, lecherous ones (John Nettles in Sheffield) through to subtle, menacing statesmen (Patrick Stewart) and I find the cowardly interpretation frustrating. This is after all a man who has killed his own brother and is running a country and planning military strategy. Having him cower on the floor before Laertes feels wrong to me. I did however appreciate the switching of lines between him and Gertrude at this moment. In the text it is Gertrude trying to protect him by telling Laertes he did not kill his father. In this production, it makes perfect sense that such a cowardly Claudius would say that line himself in fear while cowering on the floor. Claudius isn’t an obvious villain from the outset, but if you don’t believe his potential to be a dangerous operative, then he simply becomes a bit dull and boring and of no threat to Hamlet at all and Ciaran Hinds did rather bore me. The final scene before the interval is visually and audibly striking, but I don’t believe that the man at its centre carries any real threat, meaning it just isn’t very satisfying in my view.

In terms of the production’s staging and direction, there are aspects I enjoyed and that work well. The first reveal of the opulent banquet is still incredibly impressive and truly shows off the length and depth of the Barbican stage. It’s literally as if you’ve stepped in to a painting which is wonderful. The music by Jon Hopkins is wonderfully atmospheric, as is the lightning design. I also like the comedic touches of Hamlet within his fort, as if a child once again. It’s also much better that the projected visuals that used to appear in every doorway, whenever the Ghost appeared have been greatly reduced, as they were quite distracting and unnecessary. The way the Ghost appears during the closet scene is also wonderfully eerie and gothic in style, which I liked very much. The nunnery scene also has some added touches that work well. I’m still curious what Ophelia is writing frantically, as if she is trying to warn Hamlet, then it’s clear from Benedict’s performance of the scene that he senses that Claudius or someone working for him is listening.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo by: Johan Persson

However I do have some not insignificant grumbles. The positioning of the balcony is ill-conceived, as it is not able to be seen by those sitting on the left side of the auditorium – I’d guess at least the first 4-5 seats of each row have a restricted view for the scenes that take place there, including Hamlet’s reaction on first seeing his father’s Ghost and his consideration of killing Claudius seemingly at prayer (and charging over £60 for such seats is very poor indeed). With such a vast space, this balcony could surely have been moved.

The set is also too busy at times. The banquet scene results in the frustration of seeing servants carrying chairs and flowers etc. off stage as Laertes and Ophelia have their moment together (crucial to weight their affection in preparation for the tragedies to come). The rushing on of desks and office furniture as Ophelia also comes across Hamlet trying on his outfits is also distracting. This moment between the two is one of the few opportunities to try and make a connection between them and yet it is lost amongst the needless moving on of furniture. These courtiers may wear the same coloured suits as the walls but they are still a distraction at times when the focus should be on the play, not on the visuals. The addition of instruments filled with flowers during the play scene are perhaps the most pointless. They are brought on and then simply carried off again, serving no real purpose. With a play whose text is as rich as Hamlet’s such things stood out as style over substance for me.

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The view you miss if you can’t see that side balcony. Photo by: Johan Persson

As for Benedict himself, he is certainly settling in to the role and growing as time moves on. Hamlet’s soliloquies are now flowing from him naturally, as if from the character rather than an actor on stage. His passion and energy are also much stronger and he seems to dart around the stage with far more confidence and ease, which can only continue to benefit his performance. His opening soliloquy is the right pitch of anger, sorrow and despair as the gothic slo-mo banquet carries on behind him and I still love his “What a piece of work is a man?” delivered outside his toy fort with a very real depth of feeling.

Again, as with Horatio, some of my grumbles are more staging points than acting ones – I’m still not sure I like the use of Hamlet within the play scene. The focus should be on Claudius and his reactions and Hamlet’s reaction to him. By Hamlet taking part, you find yourself shifting attention to him. I also miss some of Shakespeare’s wonderful dialogue that has been cut (such as “miching mallecho; it means mischief”).

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Photo by: Johan Persson

As for the ridiculous fuss over To Be or Not To Be, as one of the small number who saw it in its initial place up front – I quite liked it. It made the production interesting and did give you immediate sympathy for Hamlet. Watching him listen to Nature Boy and curl up on his side and cry for his father certainly made you sit up and pay attention, which I personally enjoyed. Hamlet is over 400 years old and experimenting with its form is what helps keep it current and exciting. Now it’s moved to Act II (so still not its normal place, yet I see no big grumbling about that) and works perfectly well here too, thanks to the calibre of the actor. He moves from farcical comic with Polonius to someone grappling with darker emotions swiftly and convincingly and as he walks off afterwards, you do indeed feel the power of that iconic text.

As was the case three weeks ago, this production is still very much Benedict’s show. Although the supporting cast have improved, they do remain in his shadow and the production would have been so much stronger if he was more equally matched by more of the ensemble around him. This isn’t a superb production, but it is certainly much better than it was and is a worthy one to introduce newcomers to Shakespeare, through the strength of its leading man in particular.

Hamlet continues its run at the Barbican Theatre until 31st October 2015. For further information visit the website. For details of the NT:Live cinema screenings across the country and internationally visit the NT:Live website.

Theatre Nostalgia – Memories of the RSC’s Hamlet starring David Tennant (2008)!

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This Bank Holiday weekend marks a significant date in my memory – seven years ago, on the Saturday in 2008, I returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a very special theatre production. I hadn’t been back to the home of Shakespeare since a school trip in 2000, during which we watched their production of Romeo & Juliet (from some fairly high up seat from memory) starring David Tennant. As someone who’d enjoyed the theatre for the occasional trip over the years, I’d been keen to see Mr. Tennant on stage as Hamlet and yes I admit, it was his more recent television work – Casanova and Doctor Who, which had added to my interest in him. I hadn’t expected to go – tickets were sold out by the time I was able to look in to going (yes, I was that naïve then!).

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The lovely Courtyard Theatre

Yet, on Saturday 30th August 2008, thanks to a lovely lady on EBay and after surviving a frantic bidding war to acquire the ticket in the first place, I was there in The Courtyard Theatre, ready to see my first Hamlet! I still remember the view from my seat (Stalls D20), central to the black, mirrored stage and the bubbling feeling of excitement and anticipation. I could never have imagined how much of an impact the evening would have on me.

Since then, I’ve seen a few Hamlets, but this production is still yet to be beaten. Where to start? With such a talented director as Greg Doran behind it, the show already had an invaluable advantage – having seen other Shakespeare plays directed by him and some by others, Mr. Doran is one of the few directors who, for me, seems to know instinctively how to bring Shakespeare’s words to life for today’s audiences. It may have a reputation for being dry and complex, but Greg Doran effortlessly cuts through that, bringing clear, accessible and engaging productions to the stage. Not everyone can achieve this and certainly a production can seem weaker without a lack of ease of understanding, which he also proves never requires a dumbing down of the text.

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Director Greg Doran

This Hamlet was brilliantly conceived by Greg. It brought the hyper-surveillance atmosphere, secrecy and mistrust of Elsinore alive and with the production’s designer Robert Jones, they created a set that didn’t need a great amount of props or scenery to have an impact. A mirrored wall and floor enhanced the idea that everywhere Hamlet the other characters went they were being surveilled, even if sometimes the only person watching them was their own reflection. The costumes were fantastic – elegant simplicity for Gertrude, tailored suits for Claudius and modern casual for Hamlet. In fact the grandest costume was reserved for the Player Queen, so opulent in comparison that it fitted perfectly with the sense during the play scene that Hamlet is pushing this in front of his uncle and he will notice it and be unable to ignore what is in front of him.

Crucially too, one of the strongest elements was the quality of the company. The RSC assembled a superb ensemble, which didn’t just support the lead actor, but who ensured the production had a depth and strength that kept the audience engaged for every scene, whether the main man was on stage or not (a point proven when Mr. Tennant was out of action for 3 weeks due to back surgery).

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Preparing for the play within a play. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

I think this is vital for any production. Every other Hamlet I’ve seen has included some weak or disappointing performances, whether through a lack of chemistry, a lack of projection on the stage or a lack of ability to make the words come to life. Hamlet may be a play that revolves around the actions (or inactions) of the title character, but in order to be drawn in to his story you have to engage with everyone on stage, otherwise why would you even care about Hamlet at all?

Oliver Ford-Davies will it seems be my Polonius for the foreseeable future. It’s potentially such a dull part, which I’ve come to realise requires a special kind of actor to see the gems of unrealized humour and mine them for full effect. His Polonius may have been a somewhat muddled man, but you couldn’t help but like him. His meanderings of thought and seeming exasperation with Hamlet were endearing and it was genuinely sad when he died. This is an actor who truly understands Shakespeare and makes it so easy for the audience to grasp it too.

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Oliver Ford Davie as Polonius with David Tennant. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

The ruling King and Queen were also both excellent and crucially had a very real and palpable chemistry. It seemed quite possible that they had already been having an affair before Hamlet’s father died. Penny Downie brought a stylish elegance to Gertrude, but also played her as a strong-willed woman. She never felt incidental, despite her lack of input in the earlier Acts. Also, you felt a genuine bond between her and her son, with the closet scene remaining one of my favourites of the production and one I would look forward to on every visit. She and David Tennant put so much emotion and power in to it that by the end you felt almost as exhausted as they must have been!

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Patrick Stewart as Claudius with David Tennant. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

At the time I don’t think I truly appreciated how good Patrick Stewart was as Claudius. It is only on reflection and with comparisons to others that I admire his interpretation more and more. I’ve always felt you need to have some unease around him. It doesn’t have to be terror, but I always think for the plot to work, you need to believe that Hamlet is putting himself at risk by challenging Claudius – especially the play within a play scene. Without that you never really worry that Hamlet could be in danger. Claudius isn’t an obvious villain on first meeting him; his is a more subtle, calculating evil, but too subtle a portrayal and he seems too decent a man, despite the deeds he has committed, making Hamlet appear more petulant and weak in character. Patrick’s Claudius was every inch the statesman – the way he walked, the way he held himself and the way he controlled his emotions. Yet, he still managed to convey the menace behind the man. As he holds the lamp light in Hamlet’s face and shakes his head, you truly understand that Hamlet is now in very real danger. I also always loved his choice to willingly drink the cup – a shrug and he drinks – until the end the man not losing his control.

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Penny Downie as Gertrude with David Tennant during the superb closet scene. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

As for the other key characters, each actor brought something special to the role. Edward Bennett’s Laertes had a lovely, affectionate, genuine relationship with Mariah Gale’s Ophelia and his rage on hearing of her death still echoes in my head at every Hamlet I see. He may ultimately kill Hamlet, but through Ed’s performance you never blame him. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was playful, affectionate and in her madness a whirling Catherine wheel of anger, pain and sorrow. The image of her holding her flowers and grasses was so striking that I immediately thought of John Everett Millais’s painting “Ophelia” and could imagine her in the brook, being pulled under. You also genuinely felt that, although perhaps faded, there had been a very real and affectionate relationship between her and Hamlet at one time.

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Mariah Gale as Ophelia. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the potential to be so incidental that you can forget they were ever on stage. Not so when played by the wonderful duo of Sam Alexander and Tom Davey. They truly breathed life in to their characters and their comic touches added humour and richness to the production. You could imagine them as young boys playing with Hamlet and the fact they are intimidated by Claudius seems understandable. I always wonder whether the choice to remove the text explaining their deaths and Hamlet’s role in it was a choice made before or during rehearsal as their performances started to form. In tis production they are likeable and seem to be victims of circumstances and therefore hearing about Hamlet’s role in their deaths would have possibly reflected much worse on him, at a time when you need to be rooting for him.

As Oliver Ford-Davies is my Polonius, Peter De Jersey is my Horatio. He is perhaps my favourite in the production other than David Tennant. Although clearly an outsider from a different background, you can understand why Hamlet has chosen him as his friend while at university. He has a kindness and a loyalty that all of us would be lucky to find in our friends and his and David’s chemistry seemed to weight this connection in reality.

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“Goodnight sweet Prince” – Peter De Jersey as Horatio with David Tennant

I loved how he book ends this production – it starts with his arrival on the battlements and ends with his as the final line. He also seemed to have a much stronger and visible presence on the stage as although an observer, he was often right by Hamlet’s side, whether during the wonderful recorder scene, the preparation for the play (where Hamlet affectionately tidies up his bow tie for him) and during Hamlet’s return from exile. They feel bonded, which is vital if you are to truly feel the sadness at Hamlet’s death. Yes, you need a strong Hamlet, who you have invested in, but it’s Horatio for whom you feel such sadness. I believed every time that he would willingly have died alongside his friend rather than be left behind. In choosing to dispense with Fortinbras’s arrival (a good choice in my view), the emotional weight of “Goodnight sweet prince” had to leave the audience with that strong, heartbreaking emotion. I admit I shed a tear every time.

Everyone else added to the ensemble, whether Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger or Ryan Gage’s Osric or the group of players and courtiers.

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Sam Alexander as Rosencrantz and Tom Davey as Guildenstern. Photo taken from the film version courtesy of the RSC / BBC

As for David Tenant, I may be a little biased, but I honestly haven’t (yet) seen a better Hamlet. He is certainly that last Hamlet pre-Cumberbatch to be put so firmly under the spotlight before even uttering one line in public in the role (not to mention the constant commentary once he had to have back surgery and miss some of the London run). I remember the mocking articles about Doctor Who fans turning up in costume with their sonic screwdrivers and of course Jonathan Miller’s ill-conceived sound bite about stunt TV casting (never mind his previous two seasons with the RSC and vast stage CV). This time the nastiness towards Benedict Cumberbatch and his fans in particular seems worse than in 2008 (all this talk of failing Hamlet quizzes and an eagerness by certain media to see him fail has been quite ridiculous), but it’s certainly not new unfortunately.

As for his performance, David successfully silenced the critics when the play opened in [July] 2008 and after finally getting to see it, it wasn’t hard to understand why. He effortlessly drew the audience to the character, more so in the intimate Courtyard setting and his opening soliloquy seemed to be directed to you personally, while still not giving a sense of an actor simply delivering a speech. His anger at both his mother and uncle was evident from the start, as was his obvious disdain for the sycophantic manner of those of the Court (whether Polonius agreeing with him about cloud shapes that he was clearly making up for amusement or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). He feels trapped and restless, a person who no doubt was more himself outside the confines of this place. Yes, he was comic at times, but it never felt forced or out of place. This production remains the funniest I have seen due primarily to his and Oliver Ford-Davies’ comic touches. That’s not to say it wasn’t equally powerful and moving, but it had a sparkle from the incredible cleverness and humour the actors found in the text (something I’m sure the RSC’s rehearsal process would have fostered).

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From L-R: Ryan Gage, David Tennant, Patrick Stewart and Edward Bennett. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

Tennant’s Hamlet was full of emotions, all expressed beautifully, whether rage, frustration, amusement, deep sadness or fear as to what he should do and his interpretation of To Be or Not to Be was stunning. Shuffling on to the stage, head down, and arms crossed over his chest, bare feet and in that evocative red T-shirt, as if glimpsing his every heart and soul, you felt every word and understood the dilemma he was facing so clearly. David remains one of the few actors of his generation who makes Shakespeare’s words feel relevant and contemporary, something Greg Doran often says about working with him. I was captivated from the first moment of that first performance I saw seven years ago, to the final moments of the last performance the following January in London.

As was the case seven years ago, this Bank Holiday also includes a visit to see Hamlet. This time it’s my first visit to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet post press night. I will be curious to compare it to my previous visits and over the weekend I will post how I think it has developed over three weeks of previews. It certainly had lots of potential.

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For now though, I look back fondly on a theatre trip which became so much more. This wasn’t just a theatre production – it became the catalyst for a renewed interest in Shakespeare, a growing passion for theatre in general and the reason for me forming some of the most meaningful and precious friendships I imagine I will ever have. All because of David Tennant!

Regardless of the reviews and petty, snide jibes at fans in the media, if the current Barbican Hamlet has the ability to have the same effect on even just a handful of its rapt audience, that for me will be its greatest achievement.

Hamlet starring David Tennant and the rest of the superb ensemble can be bought on DVD after a film version was made, directed by Greg Doran. It’s available from all the usual stockists. I’d also recommend the book chronicling the life of the production from the perspective of ensemble member Keith Osborn in his book: Something Written in The State of Denmark (pictured) for those wanting to learn or relive the production.

First Preview Thoughts – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican!

1. HAMLET

Tis’ I, Hamlet The Dane!

After over a year since its announcement, tonight finally saw the first performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican! I know how many people are keen to hear about the production and as I’m not seeing it again until after press night (due to the 6 ticket limit), I thought I’d share my initial thoughts on the production as a whole.

DISCLAIMER – I’ll start by emphaising that it would be unfair to say this is a review, as the production has another three weeks of previews before officially opening on 25th August. Previews are vital in theatre as they give the company of actors, the director and creative team time to see how the production works on the stage and in front of an audience, to see what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be tightened up, for time or other reasons. If you plan on seeing a theatre production more than once, I’d always recommend seeing an early preview and then going again later in the run, as you’ll be in the position to be able to pick up the tweaks that have been made. This production will change and develop over the next 3 weeks, as actors settle in to roles and stylistic changes are tested out before press night. As I have done on this blog in the past for other productions that I have been to see during previews and even first previews, these are my current observations, impressions and initial thoughts on what’s already good and what I’d like to see grow and develop in the run up to press night. A lot can change in three weeks and therefore only after then will anyone truly be able to review the production and see where they feel it sits in the list of Hamlet productions of recent years.

So, with that disclaimer in mind, on to my initial thoughts of this hugely anticipated Hamlet. Firstly, the atmosphere prior to the show in the Barbican was very relaxed and not chaotic at all. Thanks to how big the complex is there’s plenty of space for everyone to be beforehand. The little shop, is very little, but with all the usual Shakespeare merchandise (between this and the RSC, the Barbican must have boxes of Bard-related goodies to sell!). The programmes are pricey – £8.50, but there are 6 pages of articles and very few adverts, but it still feels a bit cheeky when the wonderful RSC ones are only £4.

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Benedict Cumberbatch in rehearsal. Photos by: Johan Persson

As for entering the theatre, people were forming a queue before the doors opened at just after 7 p.m., but it soon moved quickly. I will be interested to hear others’ experience, but I was not asked for photo ID. My ticket was checked and I was let through.

As for my thoughts on the production. It is certainly off to a very promising start and has the potential to get even better over the course of the run. Es Devlin’s set is wonderful, with the huge space of the Barbican stage, allowing the grandeur of the Royal Family’s Danish palace to be on full display, with sweeping staircase and chandelier, particularly during the wedding banquet near the beginning of the play, which is visually very beautiful. It also cleverly moves from luxury to crumbling rubble, with the addition of mounds of rock and earth, as the facade of the household starts to fall away. The background music, by the talented Jon Hopkins (his albums are recommended for those unfamiliar with his work) is suitably eerie, enhancing the mood in later scenes, as the tragic events start to unfold. I was also pleased with the modern dress setting. I’m yet to see a period costume Hamlet, so I now can’t imagine seeing Hamlet without dark jeans and windbreaker jackets!

There are some incredibly interesting directorial choices in this production by Lyndsey Turner, some of which I think it would be unfair to ruin, particularly the opening scenes in this version, which is a choice I haven’t seen for Hamlet before, but which I thought worked very well. The emotions of grief and loss surrounding Hamlet couldn’t be clearer and I loved the song choice to accompany it – Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, playing as the safety curtain rises to reveal the stage for the first time. It was certainly more powerful than the usual opening battlements scene. The play within the play is also interesting as Hamlet takes an even more active role in it and all the tweaks and shifts of text I noticed throughout the production seemed well thought through and provide some variety for those who have seen countless Hamlets. I’m still undecided on the positioning of the interval, which I still think works better a little earlier (the first half here is 1 hr 50 minutes, so take a bottle of water in with you).

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Ciaran Hinds in rehearsal.

One of the aspects I found most pleasing was the potential for this ensemble cast. The reason David Tennant’s RSC production has remained (as so far still remains) my favourite was due to the strength of all the cast. There wasn’t a weak link and it made the production stronger as a whole. All the Hamlets I’ve seen since have had some weak performances and so, despite the performance of the actor in the title role, the overall experience has been disappointing.

It’s no surprise to say there still need to be improvements, as actors grow in to their roles, but the potential for this cast to be a great ensemble is certainly there. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is already very strong as Laertes. Bringing his weighty stage experience to the production, his is a Laertes you admire and respect and his stage presence stood out for me. Karl Johnson was a wonderful gravedigger. It may be a small role, but is one of the lighter moments in the second half and he brought playful humour to the scene (although in contrast, I wasn’t particularly keen on his Ghost).

Leo Bill’s Horatio (one of my favourite characters) is the outsider, standing apart from the court and the main players, always watching and always loyal to his friend and I think his performance will only improve as the run continues, once he and Benedict develop a deeper on stage chemistry. Theirs is a friendship that has to feel genuine for the heartbreak at the play’s end to have the full impact on the audience (Peter De Jersey’s portrayal and final moments at the RSC never failed to bring a tear to my eye). It’s not there yet, but with time, this will continue to develop and improve. I would have liked to see Horatio in more scenes with Hamlet, such as the post play scene with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, to deepen their connection and bond.

Ophelia is a difficult role to play – she doesn’t have long to make an impact before she dies off stage and so it needs a strong actress to make you feel the sadness of her death. Sian Brooke’s performance for me was one of two halves, in that she was so much stronger in Act 2. I liked the staging of her mad scene, as although she didn’t come across as mad as other actresses have in other productions (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Jude Law’s springs to mind), she instead conveys a woman who has been completely broken by loss and grief. Her use of a trunk as a mock coffin around which the people she gives flowers to gather was delicate and the staging of her final exit off stage, through her performance and the lighting and music was very moving and powerful. I also appreciated the directorial decision to have Gertrude actively make a clear choice to go after her, which added depth to her character as well.

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The cast in rehearsal including Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes (far right)

Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude was much better in later scenes and her finest moment for me was as she described Ophelia’s tragic death. I personally loved Penny Downie’s strong portrayal against Tennant’s Hamlet. Her Gertrude stood out despite her relatively few lines, whereas Anastasia’s Gertrude still feels a little incidental in earlier scenes. Crucially for me, the closet scene needs to develop more and lacked power, which is something that I hope will happen naturally as her and Benedict work more together (also the actual murder of Polonius needs tightening up, as it felt a little clumsy from my viewpoint). Jim Norton’s portrayal of Polonius is as a traditional, father figure. I enjoyed his performance, however I think I have been forever spoilt by Oliver Ford Davies, who brought humour and depth to dialogue that I’d never noticed before and always miss.

Ciaran Hinds surprised me a little tonight in his portrayal of Claudius. He was very good as you would expect, playing him as the shrewd political operative, always controlled and wearing his mask to cover his true character. I think I had expected him to be a more intimidating Claudius, who you felt Hamlet should truly be afraid of and who you perceive to be a genuine threat to him (Patrick Stewart’s interpretation as an example). I did not get this impression tonight and it was only in much later scenes that his darker side started to truly emerge. I wouldn’t mind seeing that a bit earlier on.

I suppose I should also mention Mr Cumberbatch! There is undoubtedly a great deal of expectation on his shoulders with this role and he has started very strongly indeed. Due to the calibre of actor he is, you automatically expect more from him. We all know how good he is, therefore he needs to give that extra sparkle, to take his performance to the next level. He wasn’t perfect tonight, but then that’s to be expected on a first night of such a complex and multi-faceted character. However he is already commanding the stage with confidence and charisma. You are in no doubt of his Hamlet’s pain at the loss of his father and more still the crass remarriage of his mother to his uncle, someone he is clearly not fond of, even before he learns of his murderous actions.

8.  Si+ón Brooke (Ophelia) in rehearsals for Hamlet.  Photo credit Johan Persson
Sian Brooke as Ophelia in rehearsal

His antic disposition, in my view, never feels real, which is a choice every actor playing the part has to decide for themselves. This is a Hamlet who seems too intelligent to truly lose a grip on his wits, in contrast to the likes of Tennant, who seemed to have become so lost in his own act, spiralling further in to despair. I particularly liked Benedict’s “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy (probably my favourite in Hamlet), which felt heartfelt and powerful. His choice of outfit for when supposedly mad also brings a playful humour and worked very well, transporting Hamlet back to his childhood days, playing forts with his toys (here in a life sized fort, in which Benedict is very much at home!)  It allows him to seem both childlike, ridiculous and vulnerable at the same time. In his first scene on stage, we see him smiling over an old battleship toy. I did wonder whether making this a castle/fort would link better due to its starring role later on.

His interpretation of the most iconic lines in Hamlet, “To Be or Not To Be”, is already very interesting to watch and as he holds up Yoric’s skull towards the end I was vey much aware that this was a part he was made to play. He is not my favourite Hamlet so far, but with 12 weeks in which he will continue to mine the text for ideas, I’m very excited to watch him grow and develop in the role, alongside his fellow actors.

So, those are my initial thoughts on the show. I’ve tried not to ruin some of the moments that I think will be most surprising and it’ll be interesting to see how the production as a whole has developed by the next time I see it. I may even write about that too in a few weeks and the differences that have occurred. I’d love to hear what anyone else thought about tonight, so feel free to leave comments and share your experiences. After such a long wait, the Hamlet summer has finally begun and I suspect it’s going to be a wonderfully thrilling experience for us all.

Hamlet continues its run at the Barbican until 31 October 2015 (press night 25th August). Tickets have sold out, however there are 30 £10 tickets released each day at the box office (maximum of 2 per person in the queue, also subject to the existing 6 ticket limit per person across the whole run of course). There is also a returns queue, which you can join, for any tickets put up for resale. The main website link is here: http://hamlet.barbican.org.uk . Also, I’ve posted some hopefully useful tips for any newcomers to the Barbican, which you can read here.