Review: (But is it) Art, Old Vic Theatre
My least favourite plays of 2016

Review: The cleverly concise Hamlet, Trafalgar Studios 2

Katie Stephens, Mark Arends, Tom Mannion, Hamlet Trafalgar Studios 2. Photo by Robert Workman.

I'm of the view that Shakespeare's plays generally benefit from a bit of trimming but Flute Theatre has put Hamlet on SlimFast and got its running time down to 90 minutes (without an interval). This idea excites, intrigues and concerns. On the one hand it's an opportunity to narrow the focus, distil the play's central dramatic and emotional threads while on the other you are in danger producing a disjointed, greatest hits version with just the well know speeches. Flute has added to the challenge by having cast of only six.

And what they have done is quite clever. The actors don't double up so much as borrow lines from others. For example, Laertes doesn't disappear back to school for the central section of the play but instead becomes Claudius's spy taking lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It makes Laertes a constant presence while the absence of Horatio serves to alienate Hamlet leaving him brooding without a single ally or confidante.

This Hamlet pushes aside the politics and focuses on the grieving son whose sanity is stretched. Mark Arends, whom I last saw in the fabulous Angry Brigade at the Bush Theatre, plays the prince with a moping, softness and fragility, I could imagine him flopping around his untidy bedroom with the curtains closed, listening to Morrissey. There is also lyrical tone to his delivery which brings out the poet prince and yet there is something painful and brooding deep down that hints of darker things.

At the start we find him sat quietly alone on a sofa leafing through a box of papers (isn't that what Benedict Cumberbatch was doing at the start of his Hamlet?) but then his peace is disturbed by his partying mother Gertrude (Katie Stephens) and uncle Claudius (Tom Mannion) celebrating their wedding. They are loud, half cut, passing a hip flask between them, almost all decorum gone and Gertrude drapes herself on her son and on Claudius in turn. At one point he is sat sandwiched between the two of them on the sofa. He remains still and quiet but the embarrassment, awkwardness and horror radiates from Hamlet so that when his mind painfully conjures the ghost it leaves you questioning his mental state and there is something both pitiful and dangerous in it.  Later when he says he is putting on an 'antic disposition', you can't quite believe him.

I've seen Hamlet set in a mental hospital (Michael Sheen, Young Vic) but this is by far the most mentally disturbed Hamlet I've seen. Ophelia's (Francesca Zoutewelle) madness too takes on new poignancy as she is used and verbally abused by those around her. Having her describe her own death to her brother is a powerful trigger for what comes next.

Where this abridged production doesn't quite work is in explaining the poisoning in the final scene as all references to the plotting have been cut. Being familiar with the play means you can fill in the blanks but it doesn't stop this bit feeling a little clunky, it is the only part which did though.

Mark Arends' Hamlet is a one you don't know whether to hug or give a wide berth - particularly when he is running around with a rather large, bloody knife. The sign of a good production of Hamlet for me is when I see something new in the play and in isolating certain speeches and giving others to different characters it certainly did that. It's a Hamlet that sits comfortably alongside Hireath Artistic Production's version from 2014 as an example of how fringe theatre can do Shakespeare really well. I'm giving it five stars.

You can see it at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 31 December.