“I AM too much i’ the sun,” says David Oakes’s Hamlet, looking out into the bright afternoon sunshine bursting through the open roof above York’s pop-up Shakespeare theatre.
You might think of Hamlet as a play for darkness, a play of ghosts, skeletons and multiple deaths, but Lunchbox Theatrical Productions are replicating the Rose theatre of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan London, when the plays would be performed only by daylight.
This is the second summer of James Cundall’s Shakespeare enterprise, now spreading to Blenheim Palace too, on the back of 80,000 people attending season one in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower over ten warm weeks last years.
Since that launch, Damian Cruden has announced his departure from York Theatre Royal, leaving behind one artistic directorship for another, now in charge of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s 2019 portfolio of eight plays. His farewell to the Theatre Royal comes with the imminent family show Swallows And Amazons, but first comes his Rose production of Hamlet.
Like his Rose debut last summer, Macbeth, he is directing a heavyweight Shakespeare tragedy, one of his strongest suits as a director. What’s more, plenty of his cast return from 2018, at ease with the demands of vocal projection without microphones on the nine-sided theatre, with its three tiers, profusion of wood and scaffolding, and groundlings floor where audience members can lean against the stage apron or sit close to the action,
Cruden’s Macbeth was full of gore, heads on spikes, murk and murder, the most “traditional” of last summer’s quartet. Hamlet is an upgrade, still with Christopher Madin as composer, for percussion, cello and violin/viola, and still with Sara Perks as set and costume designer, still rooted in the Elizabethan period with ruffs, but bolder in its theatre-making.
Against the steel and wood, Perks goes for a black, white and grey sartorial colour scheme (save for the Players and the Gravediggers), and the effect is as impactful as Cecil Beaton’s famous Ascot Gavotte scene in My Fair Lady. Except that Beaton’s palette was for one scene: Perks and Cruden sustain it throughout; Oakes’s Hamlet is in perma-black, removing his ruff from his neck almost immediately to signify his outsider/rebel status from the formal, if rotten Danish state.
Despite the black, the “sweet prince’s” disposition has more light and shade in Oakes’s interpretation; playing at madness before the madness consumes him. He is handsome, elegant in movement, golden tongued, sometimes still, yet as likely to surprise as quicksand, witty, bright yet brittle.
In white is Serena Manteghi’s Ophelia, her dress frayed and dirty by her end. Manteghi, once of the University of York, Belt Up Theatre and the Flanagan Collective, latterly so impressive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, is a superb piece of casting by Cruden. Her movement, expressions, phrasing, interaction, could not be more heartbreaking, and her omnipresence, listening in, stalking the shadows, is a clever innovation,
Gordon Kane’s Polonius does likewise, determined to keep the Danish status quo, but wittier in his philosophising than usual in this interpretation.
Richard Standing’s usurping Claudius, drink permanently in his hand, Rina Mahoney’s Gertrude, Antony Bunsee’s Player King and Clare Corbett’s Horatio continue last summer’s good work, while Fine Time Fontayne excels as both the Ghost of King Hamlet and the First Gravedigger, the marrow to his Porter in Macbeth.
Cruden has Fontayne retain his ghostly white face and black panda eyes throughout, as if to remind you that we are watching players at play. Likewise, the two Gravediggers’ presence at the concluding pile-up of bodies, as if waiting to size up their next clients, is a witty touch. Marcello Cruz’s Laertes is one to watch too.
Hamlet will move you, amuse you, thrill you. To put it in black and white, do see the best Prince show this summer.
By Charles Hutchinson (York Press)