Budding playwrights showcase short plays
Colin Morgan reading for Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1

The bad Hamlet

Image Bad as in the bad folio that is, I'm not damning this Vital Signs Theatre production at the White Bear from the outset, certainly not.

But still, Hamlet in a tiny pub theatre is a risk. Better then choose the less familiar 1603 folio which is much shorter, stripped of the navel-gazing soliloquies and more about action?

Some of the names are different (Ophelia is Ofelia and Polonius is Corambis for instance) but the plot is the same as the more commonly performed 1623 folio.

The result is something that seems at once familiar and different. There is less dialogue to establish key characters, so at times it lacks the depth of its more popular big brother. For example, Gertred feels superfluous for much of the play rendering the closet scene and her easy acceptance that her new husband is a murderer a little out of joint.

Credit must go to the production. There is no room for grand sets and the grave scene is always going to be problematic with no trap door but a series of sheer black drapes doubling as arras/walls and a throw of black cloth over a couple of benches and hey-presto a grave. Although I did find the idea of Ofelia being represented by a folded piece of cloth in the grave a little bit of stretch when Laertes is jumping in for a final embrace.

My problem with this production was the casting (cue rolling of eyes from those who've heard my young Hamlet rant before*) but it was the key reason for my being excited about seeing this. In the grave digger scene Yorick was buried 12-years ago rather than the 23 years proclaimed in the later folio making Hamlet around 18-years old rather as opposed to 30**. It makes references to him as  "young Hamlet" and "boy" more natural and fitting.

If this isn't a prime opportunity to cast someone younger then I don't know what is, particularly as this play is more about action rather than introspection - traits of a hot-headed, immature teen surely?

In choosing the earlier portfolio the producers have been bold so why not go the whole hog? They did choose to cast a woman as Horatio after all which worked splendidly adding blatant spice to the Horatio/Hamlet love fest.

But it was begging for a younger actor as Hamlet and, no disrespect to Jamie Matthewman who played the lead, I had a voice in my head screaming 'he's too old' from the moment he walked on stage that was difficult to ignore. It meant the actor playing Claudius was around the same age as Matthewman and Laertes was notably younger which also jarred.

The performances themselves were very earnest and better than other pub Shakespeare I've seen but considering the intimate space it failed to connect and I wasn't much moved. Overall it was well produced but felt like an opportunity missed.

It gets three out of five stars from me and runs at the small, but perfectly formed White Bear in Kennington until May 22.

* Glen Pearce is convinced one day I am going to run on stage and demand to see the actor's birth certificate - follow the link to read his own review of the same production.

** Theories suggest the age was changed in the later folio so that popular actor of the time, Richard Burbage, could play the part.