Why do people do these things to Hamlet? One answer is, to borrow the George Mallory quote on the reason he was attempting to climb Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.” Like the Himalayan peak, it always will be, and the fact of its permanence will continue to throw up new notions of how it is best conquered.
One-man expeditions up the familiar slopes of Shakespeare’s most intensively quoted play are not new, and the motivations for them vary like mountain weather. In this respect the newly formed Revolve Theatre Company is admirably forthright. Its purpose is to take it round the schools. Given that we would be looking at a cast of about twenty plus sundry maids and messengers, something radical must be done if you’re to fit the whole shebang into a Transit.
And here it is, a fairly classical Hamlet played by Oliver Dench, great-nephew of Dame Judi (patron of Revolve) and grandson of her actor brother Jeffery, who died this year. This young prince is charged not only with his own massive role but also with the lines of Claudius, Polonius, Horatio and all the other members of Elsinore’s dramatically dysfunctional court and First Family. You could do this with Bremneresque bravura, shape-shifting with enough magic to shift the whole scene too, or you could trust in the writing – yes, and in the well-versed audience – and settle for a more muted virtuosity.
This is what Revolve does. It could sub-title itself Devolve since this is what is happening to everyone else’s lines; Hamlet morphing into Polonius through the acquisition of a limp and, flirting with slapstick, into Ophelia through the floral side of a bipolar headband.
In a text so packed with phrases that were to become proverbs and aphorisms, it’s an apt moment to remember that necessity is the mother of invention. In abridging the mighty sprawl of the tragedy into a light-footed ninety-five minutes, something other than compression occurs; something not unlike the effect of the controversial Charles Marowitz version of the play more than forty years ago. The whole spectacle becomes an external display of the neuroses playing themselves out in Hamlet’s mind. It is as if the dark studio-space of his head has been tipped onto the main stage.
How, you may well ask, do they do the fencing, never mind the Jacobean megadeath at the very end. The answer lies in a snatch of cartoon animation so wacky as to have come from a different culture, a different time, a different world. In the context of a production whose physical language has been precise and judicious, this sequence has an epic but hilarious kind of grandeur. Extraordinary what you can do with a decent script and a bit of attitude.
This last component is important, since the leanings of Dench and his two associates at Revolve – Tom Smith and Joe Morris – are towards political theatre. You could argue that they have already entered that milieu; messing with the Bard is still seen in traditionalist quarters as a kind of secular heresy. One of the Shakespeare-inspired plays Dench most admires is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildestern Are Dead, and this can likewise be seen as a political piece, with Hamlet-the-play as an institution being infiltrated and undermined by two peripherals still smarting at their treatment in the original.
Revolve has dedicated this production to Dench’s grandfather, the noted RSC actor Jeffery, who died in March this year. “Of course my great aunt and her husband (the actor Michael Williams, who died in 2001) were huge influences; but it would be difficult to sit on a grandfather’s knee and listen to him reading Shakespeare with a voice of such power as Jeffery had, and not take a enormous amount away.”
I caught this production during its week in blazing, blameless Henley, in the splendidly preserved and heavily listed town hall. By a strange coincidence this was just a couple of weeks on from my first trip to the town, when it was both blazing and blazered, with the regatta in full swing. So much decency and decorum on display, England at its finest and all that, and yet; down by the river the snobbery of the enclosures, the sharp social elbows of the rival clubs; up in the town hall, in the dark behind the heavy doors, the echoes of political back-stabbing down the centuries. Hamlet everywhere; the world of difference between what appears and what is.
In at least one aspect of its own manifesto, Revolve is contentious, arguing that school-child aversion to Shakespeare is the result of “a lack of exposure.” Surely the problem is too much exposure, but of the wrong kind. As with Dickens, the key is… literally that, a key; a means of entry into a large room full of warmth and colour but of complexity too.
The play’s the thing all right, but the story too. On the evidence of this narratively taut Hamlet, Revolve are living up to their name and turning the key.
Review by Alan Franks
Show Times: 21st – 26th
Monday and Tuesday – 7.30pm
Wednesday – 6.00pm
Thursday – 8.30pm
Friday – 6.30pm and 8.30pm
Henley Fringe 21st to 27th July 2014
For tickets visit www.henleyfringe.org
For all general queries: email@example.com
Box Office 1: 01491 578631
Box Office 2: 07974 793342
About Revolve Theatre
Revolve Theatre Company was started in 2014 by Joe Morris, Oliver Dench, and Tom Smith. Working together at Henley Theatre Services, the three decided they would offer something to the theatre scene of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
The company was designed to combat what each founder felt was less than perfect about the current theatre of England.
The company is a playground; the aim is to remove the vanity and indulgence from theatre, and focus on the art. To use theatre as a tool for a purpose, rather than an end in itself: we believe in the educative and political powers of theatre. http://revolvetheatrecompany.co.uk/
Thursday 24th July 2014