Last performed on the site in 1594, Shakespeare’s Hamlet returns to the Rose, Bankside, but the manner of its homecoming is far from traditional. Director Martin Parr’s fresh and fast paced adaptation is a pleasure to behold and easy to absorb.
Adhering to the astonishing dimensions of the Rose theatre, Parr plays with the ghost of the round, keeping the audience close to the action and utilising the tiny stage. Rebecca Brower’s sparse lighting and minimal props give way to the beauty of Shakespeare’s dialogue and ultimately to the frills-free quality of the acting.
Jonathan Broadbent is mesmerising as Hamlet, a young man who, with the state, is thrown into unrest and confusion following the untimely death of his father, the King of Denmark. On an old radio – key to the play’s unique dynamic – we hear Claudius’ public speech upon his assumption to the throne, having married Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude. Liam McKenna’s Claudius is unnervingly cold and sly with an unexpected distaste for his new wife, contrary to many interpretations. The King’s humour counterparts that delivered by the bumbling but no means harmless aristocrat, Polonius, whom McKenna doubles.
Broadbent’s edgy but strangely accommodating Hamlet delivers Shakespeare’s soliloquies with faultless clarity, savouring the most famous lines as if they have never been uttered or even thought of, and without an ounce of cliché. Horatio, like Guildenstern and the players, are not cast; rather the audience, to their surprise, become Hamlet’s confidants and imply his madness for they are invisible to the other players.
Though Hamlet’s ‘disposition’ is divided as he questions whether it is better ‘to be, or not to be,’ to live or die, interestingly Broadbent plays no other role whilst others double, or even triple. The gravedigger, Rosencrantz and Laertes are all played by Jamie Sheasby who adds a new dimension to the latter; Laertes, a fiery and somewhat loose character, is shaken more by his grief than his aggression, howling into the ether with admirable conviction. Suzanne Mari’s portrayal of both Gertrude and Ophelia (Laertes’ sister) is similarly inspired. The cohesion highlights both women’s strangely similar love and affection for Hamlet, their weaknesses and their vulnerability under overpowering men.
Cleverly, it is not until Hamlet’s ‘play within a play’ that the magnificent excavation site of the Rose’s foundations is revealed to the audience, and with it, Claudius’ guilt for killing the old King. The echoing expanse, and its very real draft, sends chills down the spine. Lit with red beams reflected in the preserving water below, the space is all of a lake, graveyard, stage, hell, even a mind or receptacle of Hamlet’s thoughts, knocking all rules and expectations of theatre aside. Clever and original in the most deeply unexpected way, Parr’s adaptation of Hamlet is a must see.