BILLY Howle, in John Haidar’s production at Bristol, may well be one of the greatest Hamlets of our times.
The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate comes to the role without all the expectations piled on David Tennant, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kenneth Branagh, Andrew Scott, Maxine Peake, Cush Jumbo et al. Instead he brings an electrifying intensity, depressed confusion and agonising misery to this stark, clever production, set in a monochrome of Martin Escher-esque staircases that revolve as the action unfolds.
This adaptation, made from four early versions of the play with just a little bit added to jump the bridges left by the director’s cuts, tells the familiar story like a thriller, and one where the idea of “mental health issues” is ever present.
Poor Hamlet has it all to face. Dragged back from university on the death of his father, he has hardly got over the travelling when his mother marries his father’s brother. He can’t take it in, so records conversations and plays them back to himself like a detective working on a cold case. He smells a rat, and the rat solidifies when his friend Horatio tells him he has seen his dead dad walking along the castle ramparts. Before long the paternal ghost is telling him that he was murdered by his brother.
The prince must decide if he’s imagining things, or if he must take revenge.
Add in a girlfriend whose charms have evaporated in the maelstrom of his mind and two friends from Uni who are clearly more interested in their own advancement than in his wellbeing.
The speeches are among the best known in all of Shakespeare, and it takes great skill to deliver them to an audience with freshness and conviction. This Bristol production is full of insights that explain why it is one of the most timeless of all the plays in the canon.
Hamlet is, of course, the heart of the play, the performance by which the production soars or falls, and Howle creates a tortured and confused princeling whose plight is tangible and whose response is human. There’s a wonderful moment in the (sometimes hackneyed) grave scene when the prince and the gravedigger (Firdous Bamji, also the player king) exchange shy grins. Jason Barnett is a nicely pompous Polonius, a man whose sermons are so well known to his children that they recite them with him. Finbar Lynch eschews the bombast and arrogance of uncle Claudius, replacing them with an insidiously weasely man. Why did Gertrude (Niamh Cusack) fall prey to his whims … was it a long-standing “thing”?
The packed Old Vic auditorium was transfixed by this telling of the story, heard fresh even if you could recite the words.
The production is on until 12th November, and will be live-streamed from Bristol on 10th and 11th November, if you are not able to get to the theatre during the run.
Photographs by Marc Brenner