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A CurtainUp London London Review

A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother/ As kill a king and marry with his brother.
---- Hamlet
Alice Patten as Ophelia and Ed Stoppard as Hamlet
(Photo: Stephen Vaughan)
English Touring Theatre's production of Hamlet comes into the New Ambassadors for ten weeks. It is refreshing in as far as this is a Hamlet without gimmicks or contrived "original" interpretation. Ed Stoppard, son of famous playwright Tom Stoppard, stars as the fated prince. When we also see that it is played in Shakespearian dress, this is Hamlet as it was meant to be. Beautifully spoken with a clarity of story and purpose, it is a perfect reading for the 16 and 17 year old equivalent of American High School students who are probably seeing the play performed for the first time.

For schools studying the play there will be no awkward questions about why Fortinbras or the political play was left out or why the set was bizarre balloons and ladders. Every element of the play has been included. There are of course some small cuts but not substantial ones, some of Ophelia's madness scene and some of the "Get Thee to a Nunnery" scene, some of the Player King's speech too. If I have a criticism it is that Claudius (David Robb) seems less villainous than my preferred reading of his character.

This is a young man's play: both Hamlet and Laertes (Ben Warwick) are young, handsome and noble, although Laertes is temporarily separated from his natural decency by Claudious' plotting and anger at the death of his father and his sister. I have seen both Ben Warwick and Ed Stoppard cast in main roles at Richmond's tiny Orange Tree Theatre -- actually they were both in John Whiting's Saints Day. Obviously the Artistic Director at the Orange Tree there has a good eye for talent. Stoppard is a tremendous find. He speaks the speeches loudly and with feeling and passion; we can hear every word and understand them all. He is expressive, natural, believable, charismatic and above all very sympathetic. His voice at times a drawl as he slows for meaning and emphasis.

In the closet scene, there is no bed just a hard, carved but plain wooden throne. Gertrude and Hamlet almost come to blows, Gertrude getting confused by the stress of her situation. Anita Dobson's Gertrude seems to age onstage as she struggles to come to terms with her dysfunctional family. Laertes comes in looking as bloody as Coriolanus emphasising the threat of the rebels to Claudius' precarious throne. Alice Patten's Ophelia, in what can be so often a disaster of a part, is perfect for this production as she handles the mad scenes well without going over the top. I enjoyed the allusion to Stoppard Senior's play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when the two are first seen tossing coins.

I liked the design, a dark castle with people in dark clothes, but tall high up windows shedding light downwards and atmospherically. Ophelia's funeral procession is very dramatic with all that Tudor clerical wear, black cloaks and Tudor caps. The production runs over three hours twenty but held the audience for the whole time. I relished Hamlet as incorporating Shakespeare's advice to players as both Hamlet and Polonius play theatre critic with the impetus of the visiting players. Stephen Unwin, the English Touring Theatre and Ed Stoppard are to be congratulated.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Stephen Unwin

Starring: Ed Stoppard, Anita Dobson
With: Martin Hodgson, Daniel Goode, Sam Hazeldine, Ross Waiton, Patrick Drury, David Robb, Ben Warwick, Michael Cronin, Alice Patten, Richard Hansell, Liam Evans-Ford, Rhys Meredith
Set Design: Michael Vale
Costume Design: Mark Bouman
Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth
Music: Olly Fox
Sound: Dan Steele
Running time: Three hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6627
Booking to 22nd April 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd February 2006 performance at the New Ambassadors Theatre, West Street, London, WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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