I have no idea what French and Swiss and Italian audiences will have made of the European Theatre Group's version of Hamlet. For that matter, I am not altogether too sure what I made of it myself. Let me say at the outset, mind you, that it added up to a stimulating and inventive production which left me glad I went, which is by no means always the case. And yet - and yet - one of those odd, wilful efforts, full of discrete and heterogeneous elements which ought not to add up but somehow do.
Take the obvious example of the fishtank. It dominates the stage, set dead central. You just know from the start that the characters are going to immerse themselves in it at the drop of a bonnet: and don't they just! Only feet at first, then up to waist; until they are lying down in it, exchanging lunacies with Polonius by note or not listening to what father is saying to brother (although the i-pod has been removed by then and just as well), for many seconds at a time till you can feel the audience getting worried — though no doubt the Health & Safety boys will have ensured the presence of secret snorkels and such. This is all very well and adds spice to the occasion; but unfortunately, when the device, as we had all been anticipating, actually came into its own to serve some actual purpose as we got to Ophelia, we were all so punchy with it by then that much of the impact was lost.
Take the Ghost too (voiced by Sir Derek Jacobi, quite a coup indeed): a huge skull-plus-rope-vertebrae sort of contraption, pulleyed up by masked devils. Effective, I suppose — but scarcely to convince as anyone's Father In His Habit As He Lived. And so it went on. Some of the cuts (no "vicious mole of nature" for instance) seemed unfortunate. But still, all-in-all, it added up. Some fine playing and verse-speaking helped. King and Chancellor dominated. Patrick Warner's guilty hair-trigger Claudius filled the stage at every appearance. And the creator of all this often perverse but never less than interesting and involving mish-mash, director David Brown, found time also to give a Polonius of dignity and gravitas who made his mockers and naggers (Catriona Cahill's very good Gertrude and Jack Monaghan's twitchy, troubled Prince) seem to degrade themselves rather than him by getting at him. Kate O"Connor was well up to the distresses and lunacies of a young and attractive Ophelia; Katy Bulmer and Helen Parker made a nice pair of feather-brained blondes for Rose'n'Guild (another bright idea which had no right to work but somehow did). All adding up, as I say, to a puzzling, often annoying, but in the upshot worthwhile and stimulating experience. No need to worry about this one going forth to foreign parts to represent Our University.
The Combined Actors of Cambridge are a group, as the name implies, formed of the best of the city's and surrounding villages' top talent. I have myself over the years done several Shax parts for them — Oswald, Amiens/musical-director, Lucio. And indeed they were back to Measure for Measure at the ADC this Easter.
With, let me say first off, a good comic Lucio from Michael Flintoff. And, more importantly it must I suppose be admitted, a Duke, Colin McLean, who grew in stature, after a somewhat hestitant start on the first night, until one had a dignity verging well on the requisite "power divine". But I must confess to having failed to spot that necessary hysteria, that unbearable torture of irresistible temptation and self-abandonment to evil, in a much too casual and matter-of-fact Angelo, which didn't give Helen Holgate's strong, clear Isabella, in many ways the stand-out characterisation especially early on, enough to react to. All-in-all I found the female performances (Meg Dixon's charming Mariana, Carol Gerza's nicely naughty Overdone, Dillan Cintract making the most of her opportunity in a most poignant cameo Juliet) strongest in a serviceable, but somewhat lacking in variety of pace and mood, version by Clive Young.
And, oh dear, that now near-mandatory ending of Isabella's not welcoming the Duke's proposal has surely by now served its turn — just like that other OK-for-our-more-enlightened-times twist, the Jessica-who-wishes-she-hadn't, against which I have animadverted in this column more than once before. Both of these perverse PC flyings-in-the-face of Will's obvious intentions were original variations from the norm once; but now they threaten completely to take over contemporary interpretations of MoV and MfM. I suspect they must get regularly taught as the only way to do it. Time to give them both a rest?
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