On paper, a version of Hamlet condensed into 90 minutes, with a cast of only four actors sounds like sheer lunacy. Well, that is exactly what director Martin Parr attempts to do with his production at The Rose, Bankside. Performed in a space that is no bigger than a living room, this stripped back version of Hamlet is both claustrophobic and compelling.
One of the most striking aspects of Parr’s Hamlet is that all of his cast play multiple roles. The parts of Ophelia and Gertrude are both played by Suzanne Marie. Having Marie play both of these roles highlights the similarities between the pair: females who have to endure Hamlet’s mistreatment and tempestuous moods.
The young Jamie Sheasby plays the smaller roles of Laertes, Roscencrantz and the Gravedigger. Then perhaps the most challenging dual role falls at the feet of Liam McKenna who seamlessly flits between a bumbling Polonius and a stern Claudius. All this chopping and changing between characters could have easily resulted in confusion; however this version skilfully avoids this trap. Instead of complete costume changes Charlotte Espiner (the costume designer) provided each character with a signature piece of clothing or accessory. For instance McKenna’s Polonius wears glasses whereas his Claudius does not. The entire cast rises to the challenge of playing more than one role and that really is testament to their versatility as actors.
Parr’s approach to Shakespeare is quite experimental. I particularly liked the idea of hearing the ghost of Hamlet’s father through a crackling radio. However, some of his changes didn’t work quite so well. Surprisingly, Parr replaces the famous fencing duel between Laertes and Hamlet with a card-based drinking game. I suspect this was largely to do with the limitations that the small space imposed on him. However, for me a drinking game was too tame and anticlimactic for what should have been the dramatic climax of the play.
The part-theatre, part-archaeological excavation lends itself very well to this chilling production. The intimate performance space echoes the idea that for Hamlet, Denmark is like a prison. Part way through the piece a black curtain is dramatically torn down to unveil the archaeological dig to the audience. This unexpected extension of the space works really well, as in many ways the dilapidated site acts as a personification of Hamlet’s inner turmoil and escalating madness. This is the first time that Hamlet has been performed at The Rose since 1594 and I for one think it was well worth the wait.
Hamlet is playing at The Rose, Bankside until 3 March. For tickets and more information please visit www.rosetheatre.org.uk