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Hamlet (Susan Elkin reviews)

Hamlet – ★★★
William Shakespeare. Produced by Iris Theatre.
society/company: West End & Fringe
performance date: 19 Jun 2019
venue: Iris Theatre, St Paul’s Church and Gardens, Bedford Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9ED
 
 

★★★

There’s a lot to admire in this edgy, topical Hamlet played as a promenade performance, mostly in the open air, by a nifty ensemble of just seven actors.

First there’s the quality of the acting. Jenet Le Lacheur gives us a rangy, quite masculine female Hamlet. Le Lacheur is a transgender actor who creates something very interesting out of the relationship with Harold Addo’s excellent Horatio. If Hamlet is actually in love with Horatio, and he with her, then it explains quite neatly why the relationship with Ophelia (Jenny Horsthuis) is so fragile. Le Lacheur is an outstanding actor who manages to make the soliloquies sound as fresh and spontaneous as if she’s making them up as she goes along.

Addo has one of the most expressive faces I’ve seen in an actor for quite a time – he can communicate volumes just with the whites of his eyes and the tiniest twitch of his face muscles. Horsthuis is impressively versatile – hooded as Ophelia with a moving mad scene, nonchalant as Bernado, swaggering as Guildenstern and magisterial as the priest figure at the end. Paula James gives us a well observed, revoltingly sycophantic Polonius in public who is brutal to her own children behind the scenes and then a very funny gravedigger: good comedy out of some stage business with her assistant’s packed lunch.

The promenade format is one of Iris Theatre’s USPs. And although I thought the need for the audience to keep moving made the action seem a bit fractured in this production, it is a stroke of directorial genius (Daniel Winder) to move the action inside the church for the players’ scene just before the interval. It uses film as well as actors and it works a treat especially the energetic dancing as we file in. We are back in the church at the end of the play for the fatal fencing scene by which time it’s dark outside and, with red lamps the whole atmosphere is sinister and mysterious.

One advantage of shifting the action round the gardens is that actors can – and do – use every inch of the space often entering through the audience from the back and positioning some of the work on paths or steps. It makes it feel both intimate and immersive. And I liked the use of screens and phones because this is a Hamlet for today and the political speeches, laden with spin, from both Claudius and, eventually Fortinbras feel deeply familiar – politicians have changed very little over the centuries. Nice touch to link those speeches with music – Elgar and Parry – which has acquired nationalistic connotations too.

It’s an incisive version of the play running two and three quarter hours with interval and it tells the story with great clarity. There are, however, things in the editing of the text which grate. Addressing Hamlet as “My Lady” for instance does not fit the verse. In fact verse speaking is not a priority in this production in which everything sounds naturalistic and prosey and – I’m afraid in some cases gabbled. And Horatio’s line which substitutes the word “love” for “prince” in the last few moments simply sounds like a wrong note.

It’s a pity too that Iris theatre always has to compete with the amplified street entertainers and people cheering them on the Covent Garden piazza outside. Occasionally it creates real audibility problems.

 First published by Sardines: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-West%20End%20&%20Fringe-Hamlet%20-%20%E2%98%85%E2%98%85%E2%98%85&reviewsID=3615
 
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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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