Review by John Lombard
In Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy a savvy and charismatic politician performs a ruthless but surgical coup, poisoning his elder brother so he can claim the throne. With the crown on his head he proves a wise and conscientious ruler, uniting his country at a time of dire peril and winning the adoration of both his people and his new Queen, his brother’s widow. But he is a good man and guilt over the murder of his brother weakens his resolve; he vacillates when swift and decisive action is necessary, and his inaction ultimately dooms both himself and his country. The play also contains Hamlet.
Bell Shakespeare’s new production is not the tragedy Claudius, although it can feel like that: Sean O’Shea’s interpretation of the usurper is vivid, likeable and charismatic. We are never left in any doubt that he is the ruler Denmark needs, a vigorous master of ceremonies who inspires devotion not only from his people but from his new Queen Gertrude (Doris Younane), who is utterly in love with her dashing new Lord.
Hamlet (understudy Scott Sheridan in the performance I saw) is, ironically, the ghost at the wedding feast, a shadowy figure skulking on the fringe of Claudius’ warm and genial court. Prince Hamlet is tasked by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder, and rather than taking the direct route opts to torment Claudius and his mother by playing at madness.
Or is he playing? The key decision that needs to be made when acting Hamlet is how much of his madness is genuine. Sheridan’s Hamlet is truly unhinged by his father’s death, tormented by the loss of his father and the duty imposed upon him. But strangely, the more he starts to play at madness in japes and pranks the more in control of himself he becomes, as though embracing his madness restores his self-mastery. As his goading (and occasional casual murder) make a shambles of the lives of those around him, he stands triumphant as the Lord of Misrule.
The script is pruned effectively to keep the play’s running time under control, but at times this means characters arcs are rushed. Ophelia in particular sprints from health to madness to suicide with barely a breath in between, although it is to the credit of actress Matilda Ridgway that we can see the moment where she snaps, lunging at Hamlet in anguish and fury. The Polonius-Ophelia-Laertes family circle is, wisely, a loving one. Polonius (Philip Dodd) is still a silly old fool – and a very dangerous one – but even if Hamlet airily dismisses his death, his murder crushes his family. Michael Wahr’s Laertes is unsubtle but always dangerous. Hamlet holds his enemies in contempt because they do not have his sharpness, but even blunt objects can kill when swung with enough force.
Overall this is an excellent, if unconventional, production of Hamlet. By giving us such a wonderful Claudius, Hamlet inevitably comes across as slightly ignoble: his praise for his father’s memory was always too fulsome to be believed, but in this production it feels histrionic. We are left with a sense that it would have been better if Hamlet had stayed abroad or, failing that, Claudius had not stopped at one murder and dispatched the son along with the father. This is a triumph for director Damien Ryan, even if it is no longer truly the tragedy of Hamlet, but of his gifted and unlucky uncle: our sympathy is with the Devil.