It won’t be said that Mathilde Johnsen’s production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is unambitious. The show, performed at the Byre, presents the Bard’s famous tragedy with modern dress and a distinct aesthetic. Producers Amanda Hollinger and Hannah Risser create fantastic images, with extensive use of light and sound to bolster the effect of what’s happening on stage. And yet, the production ultimately feels disjointed, where strengths are matched with weaknesses, when not with strengths that don’t sit well together.
I’ve already talked about the look of the set. Everything on stage is set to be adjustable. A throne, table, several platforms, and a number of large, colorful cloth bannisters are changed to suit the scene. But the effort of changing these elements means that scene transitions, of which there were many, were universally lengthy. This can be forgiven, but in a show that clocks in at over three hours, the long pauses dampen energy and draw out the show beyond what the strength of the performance could keep engaging.
There were strong actors, and performances. But they, too, suffer from this disjunction. I’ll begin with the eponymous Great Dane. Jack Briggs has mastered the big moments. He hits tremendous grief with a curled body and cracking voice. If his grief is small, his insanity is big, characterized by large motions, and loud voice. And he slips from these into the strange stillness he uses to portray the ghost of his father, a decision that makes the fate of Hamlet’s father much less clear. He hits all the points he has to. But Briggs is unable to move between them naturally. He jumps from style to style, and those styles have little give to them. What he presents is modes, not range, and so quite early into the play, I’d seen all the faces of Hamlet that I’d ever see, leaving his character unable to respond to subtle changes in situation.
Other performances were troubling not under their own merits, but in how they fit into that production. Ebe Bamgboye’s portrayal of Claudius brought the same aggressive intensity that gave life to his roles as Othello and in As You Like It. But, while the script is cut to lead us to question Claudius’ guilt, Bamgboye’s delivery made him, well, “less than kind,” like I’d expect to see in a more traditional interpretation. Though neither the interpretation nor the characterization are “wrong,” they don’t work in conjunction with each other.
The smaller roles, too, are a mixed bag. While Nishant Raj and Shonagh Smith show admirable confidence with notoriously difficult Shakespearean language, Calvin Duff, as Horatio, seems uncomfortable, leaving poignant speeches feeling flat. This is a trend that runs through the 20-person cast, and the inconsistency of the performances is a particular shame, because Briggs’ character is markedly better when playing across from the more reliable members of the ensemble.
One note about sound: the producers spiced certain scenes with music or creepy static, which was an effective tool. What they didn’t do was prepare the actors with the diction and projection necessary to reach the entire Byre theatre over the sound cues. So what happened is that in many cases, instead of complementing the scene, the sound obscured significant dialogue, reducing my ability to appreciate what’s happening.
Hamlet was a production with great potential. A strong vision, experienced production team and partnerships with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Dundee Rep Theatre promised a very special show. And it had the pieces it needed. A few impressive performances, fantastic aesthetic, and unique, thought out ideas about the relation between characters. But some other pieces found their way in. So I saw a disassociation between interpretation and performance, production interfering with the script, and performances that ranged from fantastic to lacking. Hamlet had the pieces of a great show, but those failed to come together.
Images sourced from Hamlet Facebook Event Page.