‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.’ Review of Hamlet, Outspoken Theatre company, East Town Park, Haverhill

by christopherjamespoet

As a play, Hamlet is full of questions, the most famous of which perhaps is the life and death choice: ‘To be or not to be?’ But there was no question over the quality of the Outspoken Theatre’s superb production. In the atmospheric setting of East Town Park, with crows in the trees and the creeping dark of a summer night, the company staged an emotionally charged performance of this most daunting of works. With a minimalist set, director, David Hart let the poetry do the talking; his own voicing of the Hamlet’s father’s ghost  was exceptionally well done. He caused ‘each particular hair to stand on end/Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’

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There wasn’t a weak link among the cast, which was efficiently employed, with some playing two or even three parts, notably the versatile Candice Danleigh. Alfie Allin was compelling as a restless Hamlet, by turns brooding and animated, with darting eyes and wild flights of fancy. His leaps, bounds and cat calls made him a wonderfully unpredictable presence. But there was variety in his delivery too; a bar stool, upon which he perched to deliver some of his soliloquies, was a witty touch. Hart was also careful not to be too reverent: Gravedigger, (Debbi Walters in excellent voice throughout) ate a cheese sandwich during Hamlet’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick…’ set piece.

The fact that Hamlet and his friends are students was emphasised in both costume and manner. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (Emma Letcher and Jacob Simmons in mischievously good form) were seen helping themselves and filling their pockets with free food from the royal table. Lorraine Mason’s loyal Horatio meanwhile wore an Oxbridge style scarf. Her clearly spoken, level headed performance made her the stabilising presence in the otherwise spiralling madness of the Danish court.

The pace was sure footed and the first half was peppered with highlights. Alan Davison was a comic delight as the pompous, long winded Polonious and promising newcomer Daniel Payne gave a witty, vibrant performance as Laertes, at one point miming along to his father’s advice (‘To thine own self by true etc.) as if to show he had heard it all before. It is an odd part, as he is absent throughout much of the play, but his return at the end as the avenging brother was thrilling and his nimble sword fighting was an electrifying finale.

Steve Murray gave a suitably lascivious turn as the dastardly, usurping uncle, Claudius, who murders his brother and steals his wife. His naturally authoritative public tone was undermined perfectly by his guilt ridden, hand wringing soliloquies. In short, he was  the ‘something’ that was ‘rotten in the state of Denmark.’ Andy Letcher was accomplished in multiple roles, particularly as the decorously spoken Osrick, master of ceremonies at the sword fight.

But it was the two principle women who stole the show. Catherine Keeble gave a nuanced performance as Gertrude, conflicted by her love for her son, attraction to her new husband and desire to maintain her position in court. She was waspishly short when required (‘More matter, with less art,’ she instructs Polonius) but her delivery of the play’s greatest piece of poetry – her vivid, heart rending account of Ophelia’s death was masterful, clutching her ‘fantastic garlands’ as she sank into the ‘glassy stream.’ Billie Allen as Ophelia herself was superb, at once formidable with the courting Hamlet and haunting as she slides into madness and grief. Her broken singing and disturbing sense of purpose as she distributed flowers, a sort of natural justice, was the emotional heart of the play.

The company disappeared after the first curtain call, but easily deserved to return for another. They filled East Town Park with ghosts, dreams and poetry at the ‘very witching time of night.’

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