Hamlet by William Shakespeare


Review from the Magazine of the Parish Church St. John-at-Hampstead

The dramatic critic, John Trewin, (remembered lovingly by many of us at this church) wrote a book called Five and Eighty Hamlets. (A friend who referred to it as Eight Hundred and Five Hamlets was somewhat above the mark). I can of course record no such number of Hamlets seen, but - as with many lovers of the theatre - the play has accompanied me through a long life, revealing from its extraordinary depths different facets of itself at different times. So I approached the performance by the Hampstead Players with enthusiasm and indeed curiosity, heightened by David Gardner's introduction in the April magazine.

But I was I think unprepared for the full force of the performance which I saw on Thursday night in the transformed Crypt Room. Hamlet says (with a reservation) 'I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space' and the word occurred to me as I watched, for in the nutshell of the Crypt Room into what kings of infinite space the players transformed themselves! Darkness, and the ramparts of Elsinore; the Danish court corrupt and shining; the appearance of the ghost to his son; the 'rash and bloody' murder of Polonius; a vociferous gravedigger, and the interment of Ophelia, with Hamlet and Laertes in conflict over her grave... all these entirely absorbed us, taking us into the heart of the Drama. There was that vexed business of the 'play' where in this case it is the dumb show, most skillfully performed, that infuses the King with terror and drives the action on. Indeed the necessary and imaginative cutting gave us a play that moved apace, gathering force all the time.

But in what John Trewin termed 'the world's most celebrated play' it Is Hamlet who he says must be supreme, the most exciting, 'Excitement must be the key in a lost provincial theatre, on the Stratford stages, in a Danish ballroom in Marienlyst on a stormy summer right.' And it was the key in the Crypt Room on Thursday evening. David Gardner had dug deep into that most fascinating and perplexing of Shakespearean heroes. He had clearly thought long and hard, read much, but then in the end - I surmise - put all this away and given us, as every actor must - his own interpretation which grew in stature all the time. He was most persuasive in his love for his father, and in the troubled conflict with his mother (powerfully played by Patrice Dorling) - the closet scene had particular force. He conveyed the darkness of mind, the sense that he is a man set upon a course where there can be no end but confusion and death. He drew us with him into his torment, and he showed us also the ice edge of humour which is so necessary a part of the man, as is his affection for Horatio. And then there were the great speeches, challenging in their familiarity. David gave them with freshness and thought and always excellent voice. This was a Hamlet to remember - 'This is I, Hamlet the Dane!'

Hamlet, though the centre and prime motive of the play, is not however alone. He has, we believe, loved Ophelia, he is a son, a member of court with a ready friendship for Laertes as well as Horatio, and even for such dubious characters as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He has a mocking regard for Polonius, and of course he is overwhelmed by the appearance of his father's ghost. Let me say that there was not one weak link in the players of these parts - in fact one of the particular merits of this production was a sense of community, that all of them were bound together in the fast strong and tragic history, none escaped. I have already mentioned the Queen; Ted Pleasance was an impressive King, especially when the image of his murder unfolds before him; Derek Spottiswoode was such a ghostly father to inspire love and revenge for his death; Gaynor Bassey was a fine Laertes, taking the news of his sister's death. Angela Bates as Ophelia leaves in the memory a poignant image of a slim white flower, blasted in the fury of this history of revenge - she was excellent in the difficult scence of madness. And John Willmer was a splendid Polonius - marvelously verbose, unctuous (and in the end surely deserving from Hamlet better obsequies than 'a foolish prating knave'). John Risebero was a fine Horatio, that sterling character who - as someone once said, had he been in Hamlet's shoes would have dispatched the King in next to no time, and thereby eliminated the play. And I don't forget Cliff Burgess and John Standish who gave us as it were those necessary corners of the play, so that its passage may run smoothly. And away from the cockpit of the Danish court Joan Barton, Howard Hudson and Matthew Risebero gave their varied skills to bringing the drama fully before us.

'A swift-moving, intimate production of Shakespeare's 400 year old masterpiece' David called it in his introduction. Intimate, certainly; the proximity of the actors made for a sense of bonding - we were caught up in the action more immediately than if we had been on the far side of a stage. But more than this - for the space of an evening, the Crypt Room was transformed; there in the smoky light dark truths of the human condition, and the final quiet of death absorbed us, took us into a different world.

David and all concerned with this interpretation of Elsinore can be well satisfied with their achievement; we had been with Hamlet in his habit as he lived, and the rest was silence.


Diana Raymond May 2001