Parham House, 06/08/12
Time for a shameful admission: even though I’m studying English Literature at university, I have never seen Hamlet, or at least I hadn’t until very recently. Every year since 2007 the Globe theatre in London has chosen a couple of the Bard’s plays to take to the provinces, either before or after a run at the Globe itself. I’ve not been to the theatre since I came home for the summer, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Hamlet was coming to Parham House, a stately home in West Sussex not far from where I live: I’m always up for a bit of outdoor Shakespeare, especially in such picturesque surroundings, and having seen the Globe on Tour’s Henry V earlier this year I knew I was in for a treat.
The staging of this production (directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst) was minimalist, but effective nonetheless. The aim was to recreate as faithfully as possible the performance of a real company of touring players during the Elizabethan era, when an abridged version of a play like Hamlet would have been performed on a makeshift wooden stage in provinicial towns across the country. All of the actors, with the exception of Michael Benz as the eponymous lead, took several roles, with Dickon Tyrrell particularly impressive as Claudius and the ghost of his brother King Hamlet. Also deserving of praise was Christopher Saul, who handled a number of comic roles (including Polonius and the gravedigger) with great versatility.
In fact, for a tragedy this was a remarkably light-hearted production, with plenty of laughter from the audience. For the most part this emphasis on the play’s humorous elements didn’t detract from the overall tragedy, but it was a little disconcerting after the final scene to see all the dead bodies re-animate themselves enough to get up and dance a jig. I can only assume that this was a further attempt to echo the experience of a contemporary touring theatre, which would have featured music and dance prominently in its performances, but it did take away some of the pathos of the ending. For the most part, however, the use of music to accompany the action on stage was inobtrusive and well-integrated, and Carlyss Peer delivered a powerful vocal performance as Ophelia.
Probably my favourite scene was the play within a play, in which Hamlet confirms that his uncle is his father’s murderer by persuading a group of travelling actors to re-enact the murder as a play so that he can observe Claudius’s reaction. The switching back and forth between the performers and their counterparts in the audience, who were played by the same actors, was skilfully done, with the parallels between the two sets of characters heightened by the stylisation of the players’ mimed performance. The scene was given further resonance by the fact that this production of Hamlet defines itself as firmly rooted in that very theatrical tradition.
All in all, a great introduction to Hamlet and an excellent way to spend a summer’s evening.