With two plays in the West End this spring (The Old Country opens in March), English Touring Theatre is on a roll. Director Stephen Unwin, former recipient of the Shakespeare’s Globe Sam Wanamaker Award, now brings his production of Hamlet to the New Ambassadors theatre following its UK tour, with Ed Stoppard in the title role. Caroline Bishop went to the press night to see what ETT can do with Shakespeare’s epic tragedy.
The mists are swirling at the New Ambassadors theatre, and it’s rather chilly. As the curtain rises on the first act of Shakespeare’s classic revenge tragedy, the audience is faced with a blank, dark set. Low yellow light bounces off the smoke, through which King Hamlet’s ghost spookily appears, accompanied by ominous music, to scare the bejeezsus out of the court’s guardsmen.
So the stage is (minimally) set for English Touring Theatre’s production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest yarns – a tale of murder, revenge, madness, and, depending on your interpretation, a touch of incest. It’s been told innumerable times with innumerable actors playing Hamlet, the prince and son of the murdered King, who swears to avenge his father’s death by the hand of his uncle, Claudius. This time it’s down to Ed Stoppard (The Seagull, Age, Sex, Location) to enact the impassioned torment and ‘mad’ ramblings of the young, feisty prince, and he does so with an appropriate hint of craziness in his eyes and an increasingly dishevelled appearance.
David Robb (An Ideal Husband, The Colour Of Justice) plays the murderous Claudius, whose smug manner at nicking both the crown and the wife from his brother is gradually shaken by Hamlet’s scheming, while Anita Dobson (Frozen, TV’s Eastenders) is his new bride Gertrude, who has swapped her dead king-husband for a live one. Alice Patten plays a weak, fragile and immature Ophelia, who seems unlikely to inspire love in Stoppard’s strong, quick-witted Hamlet. Ben Warwick is Ophelia’s protective brother Laertes, hot-headed in his revenge of his own father’s murder, but without Hamlet’s devious intelligence. Some of the best moments, however, are taken by Michael Cronin, who, both as pompous waffling oaf Polonius and the matter-of-fact gravedigger, brings in more than a few laughs.
The rest of the cast includes Liam Evans-Ford and Rhys Meredith as the prep schoolboy pair Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are willing to be rewarded by the King for spying on their old friend Hamlet, and Sam Hazeldine (TV’s Shameless, Life On Mars) as Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend and one of the only cast members to survive the play’s inevitable tragic end.
Hamlet is playing at the New Ambassadors until 22 April 2006. em>CB