Review of The First Hamlet at The Cockpit Theatre

HamletThis is a rare and fascinating opportunity to see the first known text edition of the tragedy, the one published in 1603, a year before the more familiar, rather different and much expanded version of Hamlet, known as the Second Quarto.

Debate rages over whether this First Quarto version of Hamlet, was an early draft written by Shakespeare or an unauthorised, pirated version noted down, probably by one of his actors. Primary suspicion in this respect has fallen on the actor who played Marcellus in an early touring version of Hamlet, as the text is most detailed at the times when he would have been on stage. The greater weight of academics veers towards this opinion, but not all.

Which means the the First Quarto, also known as the Bad Quarto, is a conundrum, a riddle to be solved, to which every member of its audience may apply their own knowledge and experience of Shakespeare to make a judgment call.

Whatever that may be the outcome will be intriguing. For, either we are catching a glimpse of Shakespeare the man, as an elaborating, cutting, working writer and director, developing his work to genius or, we are being shown the priorities and understandings of one of Shakespeare’s earliest performers.

The First Quarto is about one hour forty minutes in length, much shorter than the four hour plus playing time of the Second Quarto. The action in this version is speeded up, its language accessible even where it is not familiar.

The play opens with the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father to Horatio, clearly and engagingly played here by Christopher Laishley. Alex Scrivens performs here as the ghost, as well in the role of the new, murdering King and sucessfully creates two very different characters, one being movingly trapped in a spirit underworld and the other very much a pragmatist, manipulating his temporal world.

The scenery in this production is minimal, the blocking very effective in this theatre in the round, particularly pleasing in the way in which characters are divided so they stand together in factions, positioned in orders of power.

The nunnery scene between Hamlet and Ofelia (Ophelia) is touching for, even as he denies his love, he touches her repeatedly and tenderly on her arm, enough to indicate a continuing connection, a suggestion that things could have been otherwise. What might have been lingers.

Ofelia is, despite the text describing women as weak, gracefully and intelligently acted by Maryam Grace in the first half of the play as believably more perceptive than her preoccupied, narrow minded father, who requires her to behave as a submissive daughter. John Hyatt is able to bring a light touch of levity to his scenes where required and is a pleasure to watch.

In the second half of the play, where Ophelia is described in the play as losing her wits, following the murder of her father, a different tone to Miss Grace’s performance, combined with a most effective costume change communicates she is behaving like a modern girl. Her death being more readily viewed from this perspective as a terrible accident rather than self inflicted suicide.

Pauline Munro, who, as Gertred (Gertrude), must describe the circumstances of Ofelia’s death has the most marvellous, classic mezzo speaking voice and it is wonderful to hear. Miss Munro also sets about ably communicating Hamlet’s mother as weak, with little insight into her circumstances, unlike Ofelia, in a described role that is quite different to that of the better known Second Quarto.

Nicholas Limm as Hamlet is the very model of a handsome, young man, believable as a Prince of every advantage who should have happiness before him, but for the tragic appearance of a spirit driving him to destructive action, laying waste to all promise. in his performance Mr Limm finds the passions of mania as well as the poignancy of joy, also recalling the comaraderie of old friendships and the waste of sanity found too late.

The costumes are modern, with jeans and trousers cut down for the men into breeches, most effective in crossing the divide between Elizabethan and modern times.

As for the play itself, the first half certainly brings Shakespeare into the room at The Cockpit, conjuring up the visual images he does. It is as if he is there then he disappears to reappear again in this part though the racing rhythm of his text as an entity is missing.

In the second half, after the interval at The Cockpit, it is as if the language has been largely cut down, almost to an abbreviated outline but with some sections fully included. As if Shakespeare had withdrawn his participation or, the writer’s memory had failed to recall much more detail except for particularly noted sections. No less fascinating for that.

Sam Jenkins-Shaw as Laertes is to be particularly congratulated for his sterling work in this section of the play where he carries and holds even too brief lines of text, so we are made aware of the energy of the narrative, that there is more if not here.

Charles Ward, in his direction, sets a fast, engaging pace for the production, which sweeps it and its audience along even where the text starts to falls away, as it does towards the very end.

If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, if you don’t know his work, this production is probably not the place to start. But if you are an admirer, fascinated by what lies behind, the making of genius seeing this production will be a unique and enthralling evening.

4 Stars

Revie by Marian Kennedy

Illissos Theatre and director Charles Ward would like to invite you to a production of one of Shakespeare’s classics as you’venever seen it before: The First Hamlet.

Based on the earliest known script of Hamlet, the mysterious and controversial 1603 ‘First Quarto’ (Q1), this productionoffers a rare insight into how Hamlet may have been performed, 400 years ago during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Fast-paced and exciting, this new adaptation aims to add further weight to recent claims in literary and academic circles that this ‘Q1’ version of Hamlet – until recently thought to be the ‘Bad Quarto’ – is no less dramatic than the definitive text we all know so well.

The First Hamlet will coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and will run alongside the British Library’s exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, featuring the oldest known printed copy of the original ‘First Hamlet’ manuscript.

Tuesday 5th to Saturday 30th April 2016, excluding Sundays and Mondays.

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