Hamlet on tour in France August 2001

Following a highly succesful run in London, the Hampstead Players took their imaginative, open-air interpretation of Shakespeare's 400-year-old masterpiece to the Lot Valley, South West France, for four performances.

 

20 / 8 / 01 Hotel La Source Bleue, Touzac

21 / 8 / 01 Goujounac

22 / 8 / 01 La Place, Lauzerte

23 / 8 / 01 Hotel La Source Bleue, Touzac

 

 

Hamlet In The Square

 

 

 

 

 

 

You never know who you're going to sit next to at the theatre, but we had never found ourselves next to the leading actor as we waited for the performance to begin. But that was how the Hampstead Players production of Hamlet started for us.

The theatre was so simple - little more than a square of chairs - and the setting the beauty of the colonnaded mediaeval market place at Lauzerte, a bastide village in Quercy, South West France. Actors and actresses shared the front row with the audience under the evening sky as the first sounds of the production competed for a moment with the chatter of customers at the restaurant on one side, and the cafes on the other.

I don't know about the rest of the audience, but within minutes the background noise had disappeared as I was absorbed by the drama, gripped by the power of the performances. The principal one, of course, was the title role, played by David Gardner. The rich power of his voice coming from a surprisingly slight frame, he properly dominated the production, compelling us to watch him as he led us into the tragedy.

His performance developed gradually, subtly moving on as the pressures on him increased. The scene in which he rejected Ophelia was a small masterpiece, the relationship between them obvious, his verbal roughness producing a matching incredulity in her. And Angela Bates as Ophelia was outstanding too. She started so innocent, so young and untouched. Then as her problems with Hamlet grew the tension crept in, till finally she was almost visibly knotted with it. But the rest of the cast were also impressive, rising from their seats in ones and twos to join the drama, never leaving their roles when they sat down again, acting continuously and subtly with a skill and stamina unusual in an amateur company.

And the production succeeded completely in turning that square of chairs into Elsinore, using just 4 cushions, a props basket, and a length of black muslin. We didn't miss a conventional set as Shakespeare's language, in a text skilfully edited by Mr. Gardner, swept us away. The costumes couldn't have been simpler, black suits with white shirts, black slacks, black sweaters, all black except for Ophelia's white and the Queen's sensual red.

Just two lighting towers coped with the darkness as the sun set, and a simple sound system gave occasional moments of richness at the start and ends of the acts.

Many of the company moved with unusual skill in spite of the uneven cobbles. I remember Patrice Dorling as Gertrude, heels clicking angrily up and down the one smooth stretch of stone across the centre of the stage as she waited, regally irritated, for Hamlet to arrive. Gaynor Bassey as Laertes managed to move and posture like a man, yet showed her feminine grace when she appeared later, mute, as one of the Players.

But then there wasn't a weak performer in the company. John Wilmer's Polonius was the perfect trimming courtier, Derek Spottiswoode brought patrician stillness to the ghost, Edward Pleasance was suitably unctuous as Claudius. I remember John Standish, grinning clownishly as Rosencrantz, Cliff Burgess' matiness as the Gravedigger and John Riseboro as an anxious Horatio. And towering over them all, as he should, was David Gardner's Hamlet, holding the production together both as actor and director, creating tragedy, madness, and occasional flashes of humour, looking into your eyes as he strode past you, involving, thrilling, powerful.

This was one of the best amateur performances I can remember seeing, in a production which was totally professional. A gem like this deserves a bigger audience - and in Quercy we're hoping the Hampstead players come back next year.

Doug & Pam Revell August 2001

 

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