I’m struck, not for the first time, by how well Hamlet works midsummer in the open air. It gives you the gravediggers at dusk and the horror of all that death and revenge at the end in real darkness. The metaphors are powerful.
I caught up with Changeling Theatre, a company I’ve previously seen only in rural locations where they have to compete with nothing louder than birdsong, at St George’s Garrson Church at Woolwich which is a stunningly beautiful ruin. The men who designed it after the Crimean War didn’t, obviously, intend to build a theatre but 160 years later, and after a 1944 flying bomb, they have certainly produced one. The site of the old nave works perfectly for Changeling’s characteristic traverse work with the remains of the altar at one end and the west door at the other. The disadvantage is that traffic sails very noisily past on two sides of the church and, of course, it’s under the Heathrow flight path. Nonetheless almost every actor in the ten-strong cast of Hamlet rises ably to the sound challenge almost all the time.
Actor-muso ensemble work lies at the heart of this Hamlet and there’s a lot of atmospheric folksy singing which adds an extra, rather welcome and effective dimension. Four gravediggers dance and sing round Ophelia’s graveside for example, led by in a cheerfully macabre way by Bryan Torfeh as First Gravedigger. Otherwise Torfeh gives us a suitably self-important Polonius and some enchanting violin continuo – live, background music, as it were.
Like Torfeh, Michael Palmer, who also doubles as the Ghost, is well cast as the personable, slimy, dangerous Claudius and Sarah Naughton’s anxous, tense Gertude is good to watch. Niamh Finlay delights as a diminutive Ophelia gradually getting shriller as she succumbs to mental illness and there’s lovely work from the Khalid Daley as a hilarious Osric and sycophantic Guildenstern. He brings out the humour deliciously in both which provides a few moments of balance in an otherwise pretty dark play. Cary Ryan’s high voiced, hammy Player Queen is quite something too – especially given that he’s the company’s apprentice, fresh from his A levels and on work experience with Changeling.
Every member of this ensemble is good, despite varying levels of experience, and they work impressively together but Alex Phelps as Hamlet is in another league. He is an extraordinarily naturalistic actor who delivers the great soliloquies, pouring his heart out to audience members only a few feet away as if he has only just thought of them. I have rarely heard these tricky-to-negotiate set pieces sounding quite so fresh and convincing. He catches every nuance and mood change in the biggest speaking role in Shakespeare too – at one moment very childlike and vulnerable and at the next weighed down by inner turmoil or anger. His “antic disposition” is entertaining and his closet scene – sons are not meant to think about their mothers having sex – even more disturbing than it usually is. I look forward to seeing him in lots more roles soon – please.
This performance of Hamlet is the beginning of a summer-long tour of pop up venues in Kent, London (and as far as Wales). Catch it if you can.
First published by Sardines http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Changeling%20Theatre%20(professional%20&%20community)-Hamlet&reviewsID=2893