Review: Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Globe

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

The 2011 season at the Globe theatre has eased open in a rather low-key manner with the reading of the King James Bible and this touring production of Hamlet, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, taking a short residency before the first main show, All’s Well That Ends Well, opens on 27th April. This is an extremely pacy, much funnier than usual interpretation of the play which has taken a magpie approach in co-opting lines from the First Quarto into the text which adds to the rough-edged feel which is being aimed for here (I think) and firmly establishing its identity as a unique production, different to any that might have come recently.

Ultimately though, this was something of an underwhelming production. A cast of eight actors, plus two stage managers, whip through the tale of political intrigues and tragic vengeance with high energy and skill but little cumulative effect. Set up against a raft of recent star-heavy versions – Tennant, Law, Simm, Kinnear and their attendant top-notch ensembles (plus the upcoming Sheen) this has a lot to live up to in recent memory of these other Hamlets. But in its presentation of the story, it also crucially puts itself up against the huge wit and innovation of the recent work of companies like Propeller’s touring double bill and Cheek By Jowl’s Tempest that really does just leave this production standing.

It’s not that it is a bad show by any means, it just feels a little workmanlike, a little uninspired, caught between innovation and tradition and delivering neither with particularly huge success. The injection of pace is one thing but there are moments here where it simply races with breakneck speed, not really permitting much depth of portrayal. Most obvious here is Joshua McGuire’s energetic and quick-witted turn as the central character which although making its stamp on the role (you will not have heard ‘to be or not to be…’ like this before) but with little time for pensiveness, there’s no real sense of tragedy being built up and McGuire was unable to build the necessary gravitas to lead the play.

Around him the remaining ensemble of seven cover all the other roles, plus providing musical accompaniment at regular intervals and so are working extremely hard throughout. Tom Lawrence as Rosencrantz and Fortinbras and Alex Warren and Guildenstern and Laertes stood out the most for me, making the most of the opportunity to delineate the comic element of R&G from their other roles, though Ian Midlane found a nice depth to Horatio and John Bett played Polonius for as many laughs as he could get which was different though largely effective.

As a touring show, it doesn’t make the most of the uniqueness of the Globe staging, opting for an easily transportable scaffold with detachable planks and stools which are endlessly rearranged to create new locations and a curtain which stretches from pillar to pillar. This provides for the best aspect of the show when the cast manage to play the Players and the watching courtiers in the same scene by opening and closing this long curtain and managing the one coup de théâtre of the night that really pleased me. There was a nice sense of occasion in being at the Globe on Shakespeare’s birthday, even with heavy rain falling at times, for this inoffensive, but far from essential production.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 9th July at Globe, 8th August at a range of venues including Bath, Richmond and Penzance, check the website for more detailed info

5 Replies to “Review: Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Globe”

  1. I mostly agree, though I think I liked it a bit more than you. It did take me a long time to adjust to the style it was being done in, especially since I saw the Kinnear version so recently.

    I can't help thinking this kind of small-scale production is more effective for the comedies – the Globe's touring Midsummer Night's Dream last year, done much in the same style with a young cast and lots of quick changes, was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever seen on stage.

    It didn't feel at all like what I think of as Hamlet, but once I'd got over that I enjoyed it for what it was, and as a Hamlet nerd it was nice to hear those "new" lines from the First Quarto.

    (Was the coup de théâtre you're referring to the Claudius moment? If so, I agree – took me by surprise!)

  2. If you're interested by the First Quarto, why not come down to the White Bear in Kennington and see our version of that text – with every word of it spoken – not just cherry picked! We're on til 22nd May.

  3. Very disappointing casting of the lead role. McGuire's strange grimace at the end of nearly every line was totally off-putting. But the rest of the cast did a pretty good job. I agree that there was little tension or tragedy in this production. A bit of a damp squib that has to be blamed on the director.

  4. McGuire was a let-down. The play (at the Globe, earlier this week) was carried instead by the rest of the cast. McGuire was bearable when grimly ironic, otherwise far too lightweight. I've seen ten Hamlets on three continents this decade–and, I'm sorry to say–this was the least inspiring.

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