Descending, on a hot, clammy but rainy evening, to the very intimate Arcola Studio 2, in the former garment factory turned into one of London’s best theatres, is very reminiscent of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Hamlet Project, a condensed version of the great Shakespeare play, actually originated at last year’s festival, getting respectable notices.
Firstly let me say that this is a great show, well performed and highly entertaining. Here the Prince of Denmark’s role has been split between two actors who appear onstage at the same time, making his soliloquies into conversations between himself. Actually that is exactly what a monologue is, thinking aloud onstage, a debate as to the best course of action, the assessing of ideas, so the splitting or the role works very well and makes absolute sense.
Ever time I see Hamlet, or a version of it, I am surprised to be reminded of just how huge the range of sayings and phrases derived from the play are (‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘the lady doth protest too much’, ‘the play’s the thing’ and ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ for a start). The Hamlet Project gives us the greatest hits in a whirlwind 95 minutes (Hamlet can run to 4 hours or more), omitting Rosencrantz or Guildenstern or anything else not totally fundamental to the plot. In this sense it is reductive, but as an introduction to the play it is excellent and comprehensible, plus for those more familiar with the work the dual Hamlets and good acting make a revisit worthwhile too.
There are problems in Hannah Kaye’s production (she also does the nifty adaptation), but they can mostly be put down to the fact that 5 actors have to perform the show with no help and a necessarily tiny budget in a minuscule basement (a remarkable feat really). The utilitarian set consisting of a scaffold frame with cloths suspended from it (creating a tiny backstage area), is let down several times when the velcro fastenings holding the cloth up fail (causing a few laughs when the actors ‘backstage’ are forced to rotate the cloth hiding them from the audience at one point).
That technical/monetary hitch aside, the major problem for me was The Murder of Gonzago/The Mousetrap, the play that is performed before the Royal court. This was represented by a film beamed onto the backcloth, and was rather sketchy (with ‘Digital DVD’ appearing before and after the short piece, somewhat breaking the mood), and didn’t have much impact. The film seemed out of place with the rest of the production (which is low tech and nicely simple), and rather clunky. It gave the impression that it was included just because they could do so, rather than to fit a coherent vision of the play.
Claudius and Gertrude are played by the same female actor (folding her collar up and down accordingly, constantly ranging between the two parts), which is fine until the duel scene, when some leaden ‘my husband tells me not to drink’ line is forced to take place instead of the real dialogue. The production also rewinds key moments/lines, replaying them with different emphasis and outcomes. This is a fine idea (thinking about what the text means and the multiple possibilities the set words offer us is half the fun of seeing several production of the same play), but the horrible 80’s rewind sound effect that precedes each example ruined the moment for me.
The two Hamlets’ are generally very well played, but a version like this is never going to draw out a particularly deep or memorable interpretation. Robert Donnelley and Ton McClane play the role, one of whom looks uncannily like Toby Stephens’s younger brother, I can’t say which because there is no programme pictures for me to delineate between the two Princes. Particularly good though is James Hogg, playing several roles including Polonius and Laertes, I hope to be seeing him on the stage again soon.
Not quite ‘a hit, a very palpable hit’, but a great effort by some clearly talented young people, and an interesting and worthwhile evening.
P.S: Seeing Gilbert & George eating their dinner at their usual Turkish restaurant (I can also attest to its excellence) and eating a piece of truly fresh baklava from the excellent quality Turkish sweets shop (near Arcola Street on the High Rd) is an added bonus of the unique Dalston.