Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Hamlet by William Shakespeare — Guildford Shakespeare Company
Holy Trinity Church, Guildford until 23rd February 2022
Freddie Fox is a dynamic, volatile Hamlet — a wonderful evening of theatre in an amazing setting.
GSC are renowned for their productions in places other than purpose-built theatres, and with this month’s production of Hamlet they have again rendered the lack of a ‘home’ theatre a positive asset to their creativity. Holy Trinity Church in Guildford High Street becomes the stage on which Hamlet, Prince of Denmark struggles with his grief, his hatred for his murderous uncle Claudius and his disgust for his mother who has married her brother-in-law, a disgust which leads to his rejection of Ophelia and his accidental killing of her father, and the final complex denouement that leaves four characters dead onstage.
Holy Trinity’s beautiful interior is enhanced by imaginative lighting by Mark Dymock that creates ghosts, battles and the castle of Elsinore with minimal need for props. Directing the play, Tom Littler says that he set out to use all the opportunities that a church building offers, and this includes live music, which is woven throughout the play: organ music; the cello, played beautifully by Rosalind Ford as Ophelia; and even a recorder played ironically by Hamlet like a penny whistle, as well as exciting thunderous and atmospheric sound effects designed by Matt Eaton, that hold together the fabric and changing moods of the scenes.
Freddie Fox’s interpretation of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is febrile, passionate, ironic, brooding and ferocious by turns. He dominates the stage and the rest of the cast, whenever he appears. His delivery of the memorable speeches is intense and powerful: even that old chestnut, ‘To be or not to be’, comes alive in his mouth. We believe in his suffering and understand his cause. Equally strong is Rosalind Ford as Ophelia. Her stage presence is as powerful as Hamlet’s; her depiction of Ophelia’s descent from elegant self-possession into madness and suicide brought tears to my eyes.
Claudius (Noel White) is somewhat overshadowed by his angry nephew and appears as a rather weak character who depends on tricks and schemes to seize and hold on to power; Gertrude (Karen Ascoe) seems less in love with him than some productions would have us believe; Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, is played by Pepter Lunkuse: the casting of so feminine an actor somewhat weakened the character’s role, I felt.
Edward Fox (Freddie’s real father) plays the ghost of the dead King Hamlet as a disembodied voice over an evocative light display that changes the church’s furniture into flickering, supernatural images. This was a brilliant piece of theatre. Other original moments are provided when Hamlet, pretending madness, appears in a bishop’s costume intoning nonsense from the (real) pulpit, and the reduction of the ‘play within the play’ to a few moments of flickering blue light shone from behind the audience —only the reactions of Claudius and Gertrude, sitting on the stage, show what they’re watching.
This is an exciting and original production of Hamlet. It’s on until 23rd February — seats are reduced In number for pandemic reasons, so book your ticket as soon as you can.