Sitting in the audience with a large school group for a production of Hamlet is always a trying experience. However, artistic pretensions aside, their reactions to the show (vocal and organic) provide an interesting benchmark through which to measure whether a show is ‘good’ or not. The production of Hamlet by the award-winning theatre company The Faction at the New Diorama was certainly well received by the school group, who were engaged in the action throughout: as Simon Russell Beale’s voice as the ghost booms “swear!” through the speakers, a girl behind whispered to her friend “that’s well scary!”
The Faction’s Artistic Director Mark Leipacher has combined modern technology with traditional staging and has worked his cast hard as an ensemble in order to reimagine the classical text. Some elements of these efforts have really paid off to make a show that is visually stimulating, creative and fresh. The creation of a moving screen, made from orange circles held up by the ensemble in order to follow the projection of Simon Russell Beale as the ghost, is genuinely exciting. The sense that ‘Denmark’s a prison’ is created with a plain black wall covering the back of the stage, a third of this taken up by a Big Brother-style omnipresent projection of Claudius, and is matched by a ‘box’ of lighting on the stage defining the ensemble’s playing space.
It’s just a shame that these visuals are not matched with strong performances from all ensemble members. Damien Lynch’s Claudius, although holding great physical gravitas, cannot fully deal with articulation of the language, occasionally stumbling over his lines. Derval Mellett’s Ophelia is believably vulnerable but doesn’t quite know her lines, crucially messing up the word order of some key speeches (maybe such mishaps were thought to be excusable on a night mostly filled by a school group…!).
Jonny McPherson’s Hamlet is sardonic, grinning in his ‘antic disposition’ with a goon face to match Jim Carrey’s. He plays up to the character’s reputation as overly verbose and a procrastinator, standing oppressively in front of the audience in his long soliloquies makes you feel genuinely uncomfortable, particularly because his eyes – caffeinated and beady- scan right into the retinas of every member of the audience in the 80-seat theatre. He is not a likeable figure, but this is somewhat refreshing after a string of well-known actors playing Hamlet (David Tennant, Jude Law) who have woven into their performances hints of their personas as celebrities in order to win the allegiance of their audiences.
The school group found it very entertaining, as did I: not a bad introduction for them to Shakespeare from an exciting theatre company that promises to produce a bundle more of entertaining adaptations.
Hamlet is running at the New Diorama Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets, please visit the New Diorama website.