From the turn of the 17th century when Hamlet first graced the boards of the Globe theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, Shakespeare's exploration of revenge and the dark forces at work in the Danish castle of Elsinore has never ceased to enthral actors and audiences alike. As we took our places in the Club Theatre, the spare symmetrical set, relieved only by two gleaming swords either side of the central rostrum, prepared us for the soul-searching experience ahead. The rhythmic beat of distant music transported us in our imaginations to a frightening world of headstrong passions and devious plottings.
Against this sombre background an explosion of colour heralded the opening of the action, as the beautifully costumed court were seen hanging on the words of the resplendent king. He was celebrating his recent marriage to Gertrude his sister-in-law within weeks of the death of his brother, the former king and father of young Hamlet. Our first view of Liam Evans' Hamlet, a youthful but pallid figure almost lurking at the back of the court, provided a powerful contrast.
Indeed throughout, Liam's Hamlet was a compelling presence imbued with an intensity of feeling which was palpable, erupting to great effect in such famous scenes as his tirade against Ophelia, his erstwhile love, when he bitterly tells her to 'Get thee to a nunnery!' or when he later refrained from stabbing Claudius at prayer lest his uncle's soul should go to heaven. Likewise the famous soliloquies such as 'To be or not to be' emerged as the tortured introspective musings of a soul traumatised by the unfolding drama. My only caveat: perhaps a clearer distinction between his 'normal' self and his behaviour when he pretends to be mad, 'assumes an antic disposition', would have provided a change of pace and mood and rendered the bemusement of the other characters more credible.
Amy Connery gave us an enchanting Ophelia, the spirited yet innocent victim of Hamlet's agony of mind and of the machinations of her father and Claudius. Our hearts went out to her particularly in the scene when she had lost her wits, and the Queen's beautiful description of her subsequent drowning seemed so apposite. Incidentally, the use of the rostrum as her tomb was very cleverly conceived.
Gertrude, Jan Palmer Sayer, gave a commanding performance and her collapse when confronted by Hamlet in the closet scene was really moving. As the play progressed, Paul Morton's Claudius grew in assurance as he revealed the depths to which he could sink to keep the crown. Nevertheless, I wish we had seen rather more of the physical attraction between Claudius and Gertrude in the earlier stages of the play.
Darren Barsby gave us a very credible Polonius, the civil servant ever seeking to please his master, and endowed with a high opinion of his own capabilities. However, I must confess to having been mystified as to why 'this good old man' should have been left to appear so youthful when the generation gap between him and his offspring is so important. Gavin Palmer as Horatio provided an excellent foil to Hamlet - assured and confident. As Laertes, Mitchell Rous was convincing as the protective brother of Ophelia. It was entirely credible that played upon by the cunning of Claudius, he was prepared to stoop to any depth to avenge her death.
It is six years since COPs staged a brilliant production of Tom Stoppard's 'take' on the play, namely, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, so it was particularly rewarding to enjoy the engaging interpretation by Ryan Pearson and Tallan Cameron of these hapless characters, swept up in a train of events beyond their comprehension. The irony of their fate in England would surely have amused the gravedigger whose penchant for black humour was superbly captured by Jack Wood.
The technical demands of such a script are enormous and were largely met imaginatively, as in the awesome appearance of the ghost on the castle ramparts later reinforced by the brilliant use of sound in the threefold injunction to “Swear!” There was the powerful use of mime to create the drama of the mousetrap-the play within the play- although unfortunately the tension was somewhat dissipated when Claudius rushed from a fully lit stage calling “Give me some light”! Above all there was the finale when the body count rises so alarmingly and where the duel was excellently stage-managed.
Chris Janes' assured direction of his group of players resulted in a Hamlet which gripped us from the moment of its opening to its dying fall when as Hamlet put it himself "The rest is silence."
Cliff Greely directed a number of plays for COPs in the 1970s. He taught English and drama and public speaking at Richard Hale and Cheshunt School where he served as Deputy Head. Photographs by Steve Beeston.