views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Cockpit
18th February 2015


Nina Bright and Rachel Waring as Ophelia and Hamlet

Photography provided by English Repertory Theatre

When it comes to Shakespeare, I have nothing against repurposing the source material if it works. Take Romeo & Juliet in a speakeasy, Hamlet in HMP Liverpool... It can work. It does work. however, in English Repertory Theatre's take on Hamlet, the decision to reset the play in a vaguely modern school is just baffling. Director Gavin Davis has an eye for movement, but he's made some very strange choices regarding the underlying story.

Rachel Waring plays Hamlet in a reversal of the Shakespearean tradition of men playing women (sometimes then playing men). The character hasn't been adapted into a female; she's a woman playing a male lead. To make a point? If so, it's gone over my head. Because she's the best person for the job? No, I don't think that either, there are plenty of decent classical male actors on the fringe circuit. Cast against a taller, wispy and feminine Ophelia (Nina Bright), the visuals don't quite do it, they make a rather odd couple. As a woman, I'm all for more women in this business but only when they prove they're the best people. Let me refer you to productions such as Lear's Daughters, in which the male parts are cut, but you don't find yourself missing any men on stage. If anything, pointless female casting hurts the overall battle for equality.

Waring is grumpy - all the time. Even when she embarks on a spot of murder, you get the distinct impression she's a little irritated that her mother has told her to tidy her room, or forgotten to wash her PE kit. Hamlet is no more than a moody cow, the character isn't a suddenly fatherless boy driven mad by visions of the dead king. Oh yeah, and spoiler alert: there's no Ghost. It's another weird decision which robs the plot of its emotional core - we see Rosencrantz (Charlotte Ellen) messing around with a mask at the start of the play, but that's the closest we get to raising the dead and pushing Hamlet to the point where we can understand his unhappiness and bloodthirsty desire for revenge. And if we as an audience can't get behind the protagonist, well, Hamlet ceases to be a tragedy and more just stuff happening on stage.

David Alwyn as Horatio

Photography provided by English Repertory Theatre

That's not to say that there's nothing good here. Despite my misgivings over how Horatio (David Alwyn) is played, I liked the actor. A bit like Hamlet, you feel the fault is in the direction rather than the acting itself. Rosencrantz, Leartes (Alexander Neal) and Ophelia's mini play within a play has a wonderfully youthful exuberance to it, complete with some deliberately bad am dram touches and this evokes some genuine laughs. Why the show is set in a school is inexplicable, but as the students run off and on stage, full exploiting The Cockpit's layout in the round, there's a powerful sense of fun and joy. Again I'm not really sure how this fits into Hamlet's story, but it does entertain.

When Ophelia wanders into the classroom as a broken girl, singing 16th-century classic Tainted Love, she does seem rather unhinged. This is exactly the kind of reaction we want from Hamlet earlier on in the play, and the kind of reaction we don't get. Both characters lose a parent thanks to a close betrayal - but Hamlet throws a strop and Ophelia demonstrates actual grief. If we really had to have a woman as Hamlet - and I still don't believe we do - I'd rather see Bright in the role.

Cutting swathes of characters and narrative and running dialogue over itself does make for a shorter Hamlet than usual, it is under two hours, and we have previously run the risk of being burned as heretics by giving full support of hacking back the Bard's writing. But editing can never be at the cost of comprehension and impact. It becomes hard to follow the tale and to care about who's doing what to whom and why - and as much as I tried to get into this version, I often caught my mind wandering. It just failed to hold my attention.

If you're sick of Hamlet, well, you'll probably fail to recognise this staging, and that's something. It'll feel new. But if you're left confused and disappointed, well, it's Hamlet, it's not you. Take heart, there are other fish in the sea. There are certainly better productions.

Hamlet ran from 16th February to 15th March 2015 at The Cockpit.

Nearest station: Marylebone (Bakerloo)

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