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Hamlet review

Theatre’s most infamous Dane returns to Leeds Playhouse this month in a radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The king is dead and his daughter, Hamlet, is called back to the royal court to discover that her mother, Gertrude, has remarried her sinister uncle Claudius. When the dead king appears as a ghost, he convinces Hamlet that Claudius poisoned him and demands his death be avenged. Hamlet attempts to expose Claudius as a murderer, however the new king has plans to eradicate the problematic princess…

Hamlet is a notoriously long play – no doubt expanded upon over the years – which can stretch beyond a bone-crunching four hours when followed to the letter. It comes as something of a relief that Leeds Playhouse has confidently, yet judiciously, streamlined their contemporary version into a compact adventure that comes in at just over two and a half hours.

Simona Bitmate (Ophelia) and Tessa Parr (Hamlet) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Photography by David Lindsay
Simona Bitmate (Ophelia) and Tessa Parr (Hamlet) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Credit: David Lindsay

Director Amy Leach transfers Denmark’s royal court to the present day, with a little visual signposting to our own House of Windsor. Shakespeare’s dialogue remains for the most part intact, with only the smallest tweaks in personal pronouns to account for some inspired gender-switch casting. The delivery is also relaxed with a northern, conversational rhythm, throwing off some of the iambic pentameter, but nonetheless helping to frame the dialogue with contemporary authenticity.

Perhaps the most notable development is Tessa Parr’s casting as a female Hamlet. It’s certainly not the first time a woman has been cast in the part, and whilst a few may put this down to a stunt, there’s much more to it than a mechanical gender swap. The whole dynamic of the play shifts gear when Hamlet is played as a princess – shouldering new burdens of responsibility, decency and reputation as a woman without social/sexual male privilege. How would the royal family cope if their heir to the throne was an out-and-proud lesbian? This is a question which Hamlet asks of its audience, without changing a single line of the original dialogue.

Susan Twist (Polonius) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Photography by David Lindsay
Susan Twist (Polonius) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Credit: David Lindsay

Parr’s Hamlet is a buoyant, playful take on the angry prince. She’s a cocksure young woman whose aggression stems from rebellion instead of masculine angst. Riding a lighter wave of sarcasm and charm, this Hamlet is intensely likeable; she mocks the accents of her family – speaking directly to the audience – and her episodes of perceived mania come across more like a cheeky drunkenness.

The doomed relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is tender and believable, thanks in part to a beautifully underplayed interpretation from Simona Bitmate. An equally nuanced performance is delivered by Jo Mousley as Gertrude. Clearly enjoying himself, Joe Alessi delivers a dose of charming villainy as Claudius without overstepping the mark. Robert Pickavance hands over a chilling ghost and hilarious gravedigger, whilst Crystal Condie bookends the action in a sympathetic portrayal of Horatio.

A welcome bonus is Susan Twist’s gloriously acerbic Polonius, in another ingenious gender swap which transforms an egotistical and power-mad father into an overbearing, snobbish socialite. It’s a scene-stealing performance which brings some much welcome levity to an otherwise dark and traumatic tale.

Dan Parr (Laertes) and Tessa Parr (Hamlet) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Photography by David Lindsay
Dan Parr (Laertes) and Tessa Parr (Hamlet) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Credit: David Lindsay

Rosencrantz is perhaps the only male who demonstrates any fondness for Hamlet, hinting towards a more complex relationship thanks to a gentle study from Darren Kuppan. Dan Parr bolts on from the other end of the spectrum with a robust Laertes, demonstrating some electrifying swordsmanship in his battle with Hamlet.

The production values cannot be underestimated. Despite being staged in the Playhouse’s temporary yet well-resourced Pop-up theatre, Amy Leach secures ambitious, imposing visuals from an elevated set designed by Hayley Grindle. The ever-present army are imposing in their marine-inspired outfits; wrought iron gates adorned with flowers echo the imagery of public grief following Princess Diana’s death; a line-up of industrial spotlights and speakers evoke a dystopian, communist battleground. Consumed by a haunting, movie-like underscore from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, the final product offers an intense assault on the senses.

A reinvigorating, interrogating take on an established classic, Leeds Playhouse’s Hamlet ranks as one of the most inventive and inspiring reimaginings of Shakespeare in recent years. It succeeds in being accessible and engaging, whilst surfacing new ideas which relate to urgent, present-day anxieties. In short, it’s an expertly executed production which entertains and enthrals at a pace. This play’s the thing.

Cast: Joe Alessi, Simona Bitmate, Crystal Condie, Darren Kuppan, Jo Mousley, Dan Parr, Tessa Parr, Robert Pickavance, Susan Twist. Director: Amy Leach Writer: William Shakespeare Theatre: Leeds Playhouse Running time: 160 minutes Dates: 1st to 30th March 2019.

Samuel Payne
Samuel Payne
Reviewer of Theatre in the North, including releases of classic film and television.

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