Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most well known and best loved tragedies. Exploring themes of revenge, duplicity, mental health and gender roles, Hamlet is a blend of heartfelt soliloquies, bittersweet comedy and desperate struggles to get justice in a world where the one character who could claim to be entirely innocent, is a skull inadvertently pulled from the ground.

Leeds Arts Centre’s production of Hamlet, directed by Ken Taylor, utilises a stripped down set, a multitude of costumes and some gender blind casting to create a new look at this sorrowful tale of obsession and vengeance.

The story begins with Hamlet (Chris Connell) returning home following the death of his father, the King of Denmark (Graham Greensit), and the marriage of his mother Gertrude (Rachel Vernelle) to his uncle Claudius (Stuart Gordon), who has now seized the throne for himself. An encounter with his father’s ghost leads to Hamlet learning that his father was murdered by his uncle. Plagued with doubts about the authenticity of the vision, Hamlet feigns madness while considering what action he should take.

Meanwhile Hamlet’s lover Ophelia (Olivia Richardson) confesses their love to her father, Polonius (Howard Russell) who is appalled by her naivety and angrily demands that she rejects his advances. In doing so, she begins a sequence of events which leave Hamlet increasingly isolated, depressed and angry, and will leave no one untouched by the consequences.

Good use was made of height and lighting to create distance and atmosphere on a near bare stage. The lighting was put to particularly good use to illustrate indoor and outdoor settings in a subtle but effective way. The simplicity of the set did not place the action in a particular time period, which was enhanced through the use of a hodgepodge of costumes from various time periods. The disorientating effect of shimmering ball gowns contrasting with Connell’s plain black shirt with rolled up sleeves, was an interesting decision which brought to mind the timelessness of the play and the emotions in it, and enhanced the descent into madness of some of the characters.

Opening night nerves can be an issue for many actors, and Shakespeare can be particularly difficult to perform, but the company should bear in mind projection and articulation of lines in future performances as some lines, especially ones delivered upstage and from or towards the wings, were difficult to hear.

Richardson’s Ophelia was one of the highlights of this play. From her coy and gentle beginning, to her brutal heartbreak and rapid descent into madness, Richardson displayed an emotional range which would be the envy of many actors. Frighteningly real and mesmerising to watch, this was her second performance for Leeds Arts Centre, but will very doubtful be her last.

Russell’s performance as Polonius was excellent, combining bumbling comedy with stern determination which created a sense of a very real man trying to do his best in a situation where he is losing control of everything.

Connell’s portrayal of the title role was quiet and reserved and his strength lied in the manic and vicious elements of the character. Greensit had excellent stage presence as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, creepy without leaning towards melodrama and Vernelle’s performance as his mother was bitterly cold, while retaining elements of a confused, heartbroken mother hurt by what she feels is an unfeeling son who refuses to see her side of things. Rich Francis, as the Gravedigger, provided a light and quick comical touch which lightened the dark elements of this tragic story.

Leeds Arts Centre’s interpretation of Hamlet is one which exploits all of the “thrilling ‘soap opera’” elements of Shakespeare’s dark drama referred to in Taylor’s director’s note. This is a refreshing new take on a play which is adored by many fans of the Bard and a fantastic introduction to those who are less familiar with his work.

Hamlet is being performed at the Carriageworks until 9th February 2019. Tickets are available here https://www.carriageworkstheatre.co.uk/whats-on/drama/hamlet/4392

Reviewer: Donna M Day

Reviewed: 7th February 2019

North West End Rating: ★★★★