Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A Review of John Simm as Hamlet (2010)

Down at the newly reopened Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, John Simm has been playing a somewhat complex and challenging part. Indeed, he’s taken on the role that many great actors – and actresses – feel called upon to act at some point in their life: that of Hamlet the Dane. The play, directed by Paul Miller and starring Simm’s interpretation of the “sweet prince”, opened at the Crucible in September 2010 and came to an end on 23 October.

Right from the opening, I was impressed with the quality of production. For the most part Hamlet is a gloomy and claustrophobic play, and designer Tom Scutt did the job perfectly with a very visual set. A dark floor lit only by the light of Francisco’s torch, whilst Bernardo paces up and down a high balcony behind which the audience can glimpse the pale broken birch trees of the winter outside Elsinore: it was an image which burned into the mind. From the moment John Nettles’ towering and thickly spoken Ghost rose through a trapdoor swathed in ghostly light, the play brimmed with atmosphere. I also found the interior of Elsinore during significant scenes – such as the interior windows over the balcony and the chandelier which dropped down from the ceiling – just as evocative. The well-known scene in Gertrude’s bedroom felt somewhat under-furnished, however, but that’s a minor fault.

In fact while I’m on the topic of flaws I’ll cover what few there were now. I’ve seen better Gertrudes than Barbara Flynn, who didn’t seem to react enough to most situations on stage for my liking; I found her apparent repentance at the end of the bedroom scene an interesting interpretation of the text, however. Furthermore, Tim Delap’s Laertes was the weakest player in the set, resorting to a dull monotone when lecturing his sister and an unconvincing hoarse shout when he is supposedly seeking revenge.

In contrast to Delap’s unmemorable Laertes, Colin Tierney gave a finely measured, sturdy and dependable Horatio. Michelle Dockery did a glamorous job as Ophelia, but also giving the madness scenes an urgency I’ve scarcely seen elsewhere. Adam Foster and Dylan Brown had a marvellously believable chemistry as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – right down to the one jokily tripping up the other as he comes on stage, you believe instantly that these are two best mates. Joseph Mydell was suitably eloquent as the Player King and Alexander Vlahos was one of the funniest Osrics I’ve ever seen, also doubling for the Player Queen rather well. Ben Lamb, fresh out of drama school, was also memorable as Fortinbras, giving the end command of “bid the soldiers shoot” delivered from the balcony from which he surveyed the chaos a grandness it doesn’t normally have. As the sound of gunfire echoed in Elsinore’s grounds there was an almighty crash and the lights went out. The stunned silence signified the audience thought it a powerful end, and it was a good five seconds before they began clapping.

Possibly the two highlights of the supporting cast were Hugh Ross and John Nettles, both playing duo roles. Ross was absolutely marvellous as both Polonius and the Gravedigger, two of the more amusing parts in Hamlet, and his bumbling was timed to perfection – a particularly highlight was his exasperated, hypocritical cry of “This is too long!” during the Player King’s speech. John Nettles not only gave us a fine Ghost, but is one of the better Claudiuses I’ve seen too – no mean feat when compared to the likes of Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Patrick Stewart. He is convincingly over-cheery in the earlier part of the play, trying to assure everyone that nothing at all is amiss; and half-way through he seems to be galvanised into scheming through suspicions.

Naturally enough, Hamlet lives or dies by its central performance and Simm certainly stands up against recent Hamlets such as David Tennant and Jude Law. From the moment Simm stepped through the central double doors of the set and closed them behind him, a look of such anguish on his face and relief to get away from the members of the court: only moments before the others arrive and he is surrounded by spies and people he can no longer trust – from this moment, he had me sold. Simm makes for a Hamlet with a very quick mind, who seems one step ahead of everyone else on stage; he is also by turns filled with raging, almost squealing anger, which is particularly intense in as intimate-feeling a theatre as the Crucible. He delivered the big soliloquies with ease, with “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” a particular highlight: most of these were in fact delivered standing in the middle of a small space with bright light trained on his face, looking upwards, and looking hopeful when not angry. They add to the sense that Simm’s Hamlet is a very intelligent man blessed with a philosophical mind who is cruelly dealt an unjust fate. Overall: a wonderful experience.

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