In the best of settings along the Thames at Rotherhithe is a free production of a distilled version of Hamlet
. Running at an hour and twenty minutes, director and adapter, Phil Willmott has assembled a cast of six actors to take the essential roles. The last abridged Hamlet
I saw was Peter Brook’s at the Young Vic, starring Adrian Lester, but with only the scenes including Hamlet himself.
Phil Willmott’s version is specially written in accessible language so gone is “quietus with a bare bodkin” and instead “When he himself might his quietus make / With a simple knife”. The language early on in the play has been modernised for those seeing Shakespeare for the first time and evolves into the “full fat” Shakespeare by the middle of the play. This production is part of www.freetheatreuk.com
designed to make the audience more inclusive.
The rewrite is necessary because of the characters who ended up on the cutting room floor. Of these, while Fortinbras is a regular casualty, we lose the two meddlers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but then Tom Stoppard gave them an extra play of their own! Gone too is Hamlet’s best mate Horatio and the tedious Polonius as well as various guards and courtiers.
The winner, in terms of lines from the cut parts, is Ophelia (Helen Potter) and surprisingly natural, she makes them sound. I did wonder how they would manage the players but the audience stands in. Ophelia can be a difficult role to get right but Helen Potter portrays her well, intelligently and with feeling. Ophelia is the one accused of playing Hamlet like a pipe.
I really liked the setting on the beach at the river’s shoreline. Never before have I watched a play with sand in between my toes. When Laertes (Jack Donald) takes his leave to catch his boat, we can hear the tidal Thames lapping the shore and of course, at night, the lights on the northern bank are very pretty.
The cast use torches to illuminate those speaking and sometimes themselves. Claudius has to struggle in a fight with Laertes while also shining his torch on Hamlet! The Ghost (Will Forester) is sinisterly lit, drums and bells sound and his coat looks as if he has walked out of the mud of purgatory.
Chris Laishley’s Claudius is manipulative and scarily devious and Gertrude (Virge Gilchrist) seems bemused, completely out of her depth in handling her dysfunctional family. The bedroom scene between Gertrude and Hamlet is intact but I did wonder how the “behind the arras” scene would be handled. Claudius tries to pray at the water’s edge with his shadowy back to us in a pose as if trying to appease the river gods.
But what about Hamlet, you ask? Leaving the best to last, Sam Oakes as Hamlet has had experience with The Young Shakespeare Company and we could hear every word, even when his back was turned to us. He is the attractive embodiment of the young prince bereft of his father, let down by his mother and believable as the university student from Wittenburg. I feel sure we shall hear of him again.
Laertes will survive the gun duel long enough to speak Horatio’s closing words and the Ghost speaks the “Goodnight Sweet Prince” speech.
This is an opportunity for any unfamiliar with theatre to have a superb taster of Shakespeare’s classic, with the universal theme of a son resentful of his step parent and to discover the majestic riverside setting of the Thames at Rotherhithe.