Attending a candle-lit performance in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe is an experience in its own right. The space is small but splendid – although it does require a certain abdominal strength to sit on a bench without back support for over three hours. Theatregoing becomes both an investment and a commitment; with the environment both contributing to the production’s ambience as well as requiring the show to prove that forgoing typical comforts is worthwhile and indeed special. Director Sean Holmes, therefore, has more to play with but also more to play for in his staging of arguably the most famous English-language play of all time.
With George Fouracres cast as the titular Danish prince, Holmes has chosen to draw on the actor’s sketch comedy chops as part of his deal with the audience. Together with John Lightbody as Polonius (and multi-rolling as the ‘churlish priest’, who is anything but stingy with a mega-mastication of scenery, in the famously mirthful Gravedigger scene [played with equal vim by musical director Ed Gaughan as the Gravedigger] and liberally extended and remixed by Holmes), this production is full of wit. Mindful that Shakespeare’s Globe was and is a place of popular entertainment, Holmes has brought many properly funny touches to this tragedy thanks to the skilled comic timing and delivery of these two actors in particular. However, in locating the humour he has somewhat run roughshod over the poetry. Fouracres’ Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ shows off a range that includes hilarious and convincingly menacing. He is compelling to watch and delivers a fresh, accessible take on the brooding Dane who hums Smiths’ tunes as he wallows in rage, grief and rebellion. But, whilst he offers a commanding (and sometimes fourth-wall-breaking) presence when he is larking, protesting or tormenting Ophelia, he rather throws away the great soliloquies with regrettable naturalism and inhibition. As a consequence, the resonance and sense of the character’s complexity is diminished. It makes it harder to believe in his feelings for Ophelia and therefore more difficult to invest emotionally in the play’s great tragedy.
For spectacle and staging, Holmes’ Hamlet is mesmerising. Grace Smart’s set uses a pool of water as a central visual metaphor and useful prop, foreshadowing not just Ophelia’s drowning but as a bottomless well leading to more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost on the barricades in total darkness is brilliantly effective, with the simple sound of splashing water providing far more terror than any moody underscore or recorded effects could. It is a truly special thing to attend a production in which a lighting designer is not credited but a candle consultant, Anna Watson, and candle technician, Cleo Maynard, are. Although there is some very limited use of electric lights in certain moments, much of the greatest scenes are delivered exclusively with candlelight and succeed in creating shadows of a stunning and sculptural quality, sympathetic with the dramatic moment as well as transporting for the audience.
Whilst this production has powerful and unique elements that highly recommend it, it has had to choose its focus with some sacrifice. The character of Horatio (Peter Bourke) is extremely pared back and thus we are removed from seeing Hamlet as a friend. Ophelia (Rachel Hannah Clarke) isn’t given enough runway to get to her mad scene. Although when she gets there, Clarke delivers impressively, it almost feels like an audition piece on its own that didn’t germinate within Holme’s production. Likewise, Hamlet’s crucial and questionably oedipal relationship with his mother Gertrude (Polly Frame) is also left on the cutting room floor. I am not suggesting that Holmes should have included every last line of the folio and kept us sitting on benches for five hours, but he has drawn Hamlet as a somewhat singular and highly watchable performer at the expense of showing us a character who develops through relationships with others. For a unique and spectacular experience that is profoundly entertaining and accessible, this production of Hamlet delivers. But without fully grasping the poetry or fullest dynamic emotional range afforded by the text, this production is just short of transcendental.
Review by Mary Beer
A country under attack. A family falling apart. A mind in turmoil.
Step inside the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and be transported to the ostentatious court of Elsinore. Intimately lit and warmly welcoming, it’s the perfect palace.
But ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. Prince Hamlet is shocked that his mother, the Queen, has married his uncle so soon after the death of his father, the King. And when his father’s ghost reveals a dark secret, it’s clear what he ought to do: exact revenge.
In a world of surveillance and counter-surveillance, no one – including Hamlet – knows quite who or what to believe.
Caught between a perfect world of deceit, and an uglier underlying reality, Hamlet is horrified by the role he seems required to play, as madness threatens to rip apart the lie around him and expose the truth beneath.
Performed for the first time in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, this Globe Ensemble production, led by Associate Artistic Director, Sean Holmes, sheds candlelight on Shakespeare’s iconic tale of manipulation, disruption, and coercion.
The role of Hamlet is played by George Fouracres
Peter Bourke will play Horatio.
Rachel Hannah Clarke will play Ophelia
George Fouracres will play Hamlet.
Polly Frame will play Gertrude.
Francesca Henry will play Rosencrantz.
Nadi Kemp-Sayfi will play Laertes.
John Lightbody will play Polonius.
Ciarán O’Brien will play Guildenstern / Ghost.
Irfan Shamji will play Claudius.
4 FEBRUARY – 9 APRIL
SAM WANAMAKER PLAYHOUSE