Hamlet:1603 – White Bear Theatre

Imagine watching the end of Gone With The Wind and Rhett Butler turns to Scarlett O’Hara and says “Frankly, my dear, I don’t really care”. Close but not quite. It’s the same with Hamlet:1603 a rarely staged performance of the First Quarto Hamlet. The story is there but much truncated and many of the famous speeches and asides are either missing or abridged.

Published 20 years prior to the Folio text we mostly see now, there’s much academic debate over what this ‘Bad Quarto’ was. Some think it was a touring script with others thinking it was a pirate version penned from what could be remembered by an actor from the original production.

Whatever its origins, this production of Hamlet takes some getting used to. As well as the textual changes, familiar characters have subtle name changes; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become Rossencraft and Gilderstone, Gertrude is Gertred, and Ophelia Ofelia. Running around half the length of the more traditional Hamlet, this is a fast paced romp through the state of Denmark.

Unfortunately the swift pace does come at the expense of any effective building of tension, resulting in a strangely sterile production.

How much of this is a result of the text or production is subject to debate but Imogen Bond’s staging never fully engages.

Transposed to the 1940s this is a minimalist production that mirrors the slimmed town script, a couple of benches and some voile curtains providing the backdrop for the action. The simple staging should work to focus attention onto the complex emotional interaction of the players but here the chemistry never fully works.

There are many different approaches to tackle the title role but Jamie Matthewman’s Hamlet can’t seem to decide which route to take. There’s no real conviction that this is a troubled Prince fighting his emotions, not helped by an accent that seems to wander widely. It’s often a melodramatic performance that seems at odds with the restrained nature of the remainder of the piece. Overall there is a lack of real chemistry between the characters, especially noticeable in scenes between Hamlet and his mother Gertred (an underplayed Diana Katis).

There are strong performances from Rebecca Pownall as Ofelia and from Katie Hayes as a female Horatio though this cross gender casting does provide its own confusion with a further romantic sub plot. Matthew Spencer also delivers a strong performance as Leartes but the edited script limits his opportunities.

On one level Hamlet:1603 acts as an introduction to the fuller text but on another it disappoints with its lack of depth and the poetic flourishes we have grown to expect. One for the Hamlet fans to add to their collections but sadly not fully served in this often flat production.

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