Do theatre-goers need another Hamlet? Dominic Dromgoole’s touring production follows hot on the heels of Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed staging at the National Theatre, barely a mile from the Globe. We have enjoyed a string of excellent Hamlets of late: Jude Law, David Tennant, John Simm and Rory Kinnear. And now the up-and-coming Joshua McGuire steps into the role.
But this is a different Hamlet. It has been abridged for the tour – in Shakespeare’s day, the further plays travelled from London the more they were cut – and Dromgoole’s cuts are guided by the earliest, crudest version of the play, found in The First Quarto.
For Dromgoole, this version “has a robust energy and winning ability to get on with it”. The trouble is, Hamlet the man has always lacked that very ability; he is defined by a lingering self-doubt. Here the Dane does not possess the tortured indecision that audiences expect to see – he doesn’t have the time.
McGuire is younger than recent Hamlets on the British stage and he brings a boyish excitability and naughtiness to the part. Next to, say, Ethan Hawke’s brooding teen in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film version, this Hamlet wears his suffering lightly.
In abbreviating Hamlet, Dromgoole not only reduces his lead character, he also upsets the play’s balance of comic and tragic. It skips along at a merry pace, and the simple period garb, wooden scaffold and folk music (the actors resemble a travelling band of players, instruments in hand) are that of pastoral comedy. Visual jokes trump verbal imagery, and a kind of rustic jollity reigns.
There are some notable performances, and the eight-strong cast double up effectively – with Simon Armstrong playing the ghost, his usurping brother Claudius and the player king in the play-within-the-play. On press night, John Bett’s Polonius was a winner with the audience, banging on in a suitably tiresome fashion, his Edinburgh drawl particularly appropriate when advising his son Laertes, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”. Jade Anouka, a sweetly innocent Ophelia, introduces a tragic note as she descends into a childlike madness.
This is a slick and engaging production, cleverly tuned to outdoor touring locations – but it is is by no means a definitive Hamlet.