It's curious that when I've seen a Shakespeare play not so much trimmed as hacked back to a short running time, at some point I will be thinking 'well I don't know why they left that bit in'. I suppose it's a case of once you start cutting, where do you stop? And so it is with English Repertory Theatre's 90 minute Hamlet at the Cockpit Theatre. Well, actually they inserted an interval so the total running time is longer than that.
They've modernised the setting putting Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Ophelia and Laertes in a classroom taught by Horatio. These are naughty teens messing around while the teacher's back is turned and passing notes - that's how Hamlet find out about his Uncle killing his father. They play with a skeleton in the corner which you know will come into its own for the grave yard scene.
It is youthful and energetic and there is some imaginative juxtaposition of characters in order to speed up the play. Ophelia becomes complicit with Hamlet in that she is there when he tells Horatio about his father's ghost, for example.
But the problem is the idea doesn't quite carry through and there are some odd staging decisions. Horatio mutters through a lesson while Claudius and Gertrude discuss Hamlet in the corner which was distracting when you are sat close to Horatio and on the opposite side of the stage to Claudius and Gertrude. Later the 'grown ups' talk from a balcony while the 'kids' talk below drowning each other out so you end up listening to neither.
Adding in the interval seems a bit odd when it is so short and it breaks the pace so that when we come back for the second half there are what seem like relatively long and static speeches between Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude and then Laertes. It felt slow after all the running around and the shortened speeches of the first half. Having trimmed everything to brevity up to this point why milk these speeches in particular? If you aren't familiar with Hamlet you may have already got lost somewhere around the players anyway.
Rachel Waring plays an impish, energetic Hamlet; you wait years for a female Prince and two come along in six months. But at this pace it isn't a Hamlet that mines the depths of emotions, Hamlet feels frantic rather than conflicted - perhaps this is where it should have slowed down a little?
Nina Bright is a sassy Ophelia and by not dwelling too much on her madness and the suicide her descent seems to work better. She sings Tainted Love in a brief flower scene.
You have to suspend logic and too deep analysis of the play in order to allow the setting to work, see this as Hamlet greatest hits albeit with that one odd track that doesn't quite fit. Overall it gets 6/10 for effort and 5/10 for delivery. It runs at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone until March 15.