Director Dominic Hill's new production of Shakespeare’s most popular play takes the radical step of giving us a Hamlet who is essentially the villain. While still troubled by his father's death, this Hamlet’s emotional turmoil and grief are toned down while his callousness about the harm he causes is emphasised.Brian Ferguson as Hamlet is violent, cold and calculating; we see him angry and confused, but very rarely upset, with the actor flipping between bawdy jokes with friends and plotting his uncle's downfall with unsettling skill.
A very exciting new production of a classic play; a testament to the fact that, even after 400 years, there are still new and worthwhile things to be done with it.
Taking a leaf out of Othello’s book, all Hamlet’s soliloquies are presented as Iago-styled direct addresses to the audience, making them feel complicit in his schemes. Yet the risk with this approach is that it takes great charisma to portray a villainous Hamlet we still want to spend time with.Ferguson certainly has his moments but, when he sexually assaults Ophelia or shows no remorse at committing murder, he becomes too straightforwardly nasty to be really interesting.
This unsympathetic, villainous-Hamlet is strongly balanced, however, by a highly sympathetic Ophelia; Hill’s production essentially elevates her role to that of co-lead, placed squarely at the heart of each scene she is in. Meghan Tyler's performance is quite perfect, bringing an unexpected self-confidence and charm to the character in the early scenes, which lends a truly heartbreaking quality to her subsequent downward trajectory. Ophelia is on stage a lot, though frequently silent; in other productions, she might blend into the background, but not so here. When Tyler is on stage, it is almost impossible to look at anyone else.
Tyler's great charisma, along with Roberta Taylor's breathtakingly subtle Gertrude, enables Hill to address the play’s treatment of women as an underlying but crucial theme. There's a hint of misogyny early on when Ophelia's brother wipes her lipstick off with the back of his hand, and this sets the tone for the escalating violence she experiences during the rest of the play. It is a tribute to the skill of the direction that this nuance is drawn out while still remaining true to the text.
Rather than resting on Hamlet's shoulders, the production is carried by its excellent supporting cast. Particularly worthy of note is Cliff Burnett as Polonius; Hamlet may dismiss this king's advisor as a“tedious old fool”, but Burnett not only does an excellent job of playing the clown in his scenes with Hamlet, but also simultaneously becomes the villain of Ophelia’s story—a dangerous, even vicious old patriarch, interested only in controlling her and not in her well-being.
Also worthy of note is Ben Onwukwe, who plays the Ghost and the Gravedigger. As the Ghost, the majesty he brings to the role really grounds the scene; as the Gravedigger, his levity is contagious enough that it is genuinely possible to laugh even amidst the disaster that surrounds the scene.
For the most part, this is a very exciting new production of a classic play; a testament to the fact that, even after 400 years, there are still new and worthwhile things to be done with it.