You wait ages for one Hamlet to come along. Then suddenly six show up at the same time. To bus or not to bus. That appears to be the question.

A simple and delightful treat

In a little over six months, this immortal line has been delivered on a professional UK stage over 175 times. (If you disagree with my maths, please show me your workings). By Sir Ian McKellen in an age-blind Hamlet. By Cush Jumbo in a gender-blind Hamlet. By Freddie Fox’s drunken, youthful Hamlet. And with a Brummie accent in The Globe’s comedic Hamlet.

It’s yet to be seen whether it will also be spoken in the balletic Hamlet opening this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Or whether the dance will impact the delivery of the lead character, who will once again be Sir Ian McKellen. 

From Aspiration to Obligation

There was a time when playing Hamlet was an actor’s aspiration. With so many Hamlets now falling over each other to be King, it now seems little more than an obligation.

Amongst such competition, productions of Hamlet often focus less on the bones of the play itself and more on the ‘clever’ treatment being given. The text becomes little more than a scaffold upon which directors can build a statue in honour of their own theatrical expertise. The resulting productions heavier on style than substance.

It feels like we are not supposed to understand Hamlet as a play.

Instead we are meant to appreciate the intelligence of the director’s interpretation.

So, it is even more refreshing that here we have a Hamlet that just lays out the story as it was intended. Done very simply. With no fuss and no frills.

A Never-See Hamlet

The Hamlet currently playing at the National Theatre’s Dorfman goes back to basics. It is a production you can understand without having read every one of Michael Billington’s reviews.

It reminds us that underneath all the pretension, there is a damn good story. He was pretty good that Shakespeare bloke, wasn’t he?

Unfortunately, it is also a production you are unlikely to see.

The show’s performance times of 11am and 1.30pm make it difficult for most working adults to attend. Unless you are a teacher. Or an 8 year-year-old. Without a job.

This is a stripped-down version specifically “adapted for young audiences.” Writer Jude Christian – who has directed shows at the Gate, the Royal Court, the Lyric Hammersmith, and the Royal Exchange – has cut over 2 hours from the play so that it runs at a delightfully efficient 65 minutes.

It has not been hacked to death. The most essential elements of the main plot are still here. And the language hasn’t been modernised to make it sound ‘down with the kids’’. Instead there are the occasional additions of more natural speech that sound ad-libbed around the most well-known original verse.

Director Tinuke Craig allows her actors to take their time over the lines, simplifying their meaning. Kiren Kebaili-Dwyer makes eye-contact with the very young audience for his Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be, involving them in his quandary rather than putting his inner torment on display for us to watch.

Subtly Stimulating

Maintaining interest from a generation used to immediacy is more challenging than ever. Over-stimulation will lose them just as quickly. Craig manages to strike the right balance with the repetition of clear visual signifiers that create consistent representations of emotion and characterisation.

Hamlet’s moments of madness are accompanied by a flickering, buzzing neon light overhead. It’s subtle, not intrusive, and hardly noticeable. But it subliminally sets the required atmospheric tension each time it is required.

The simple costumes rely on strong colours to show clear sides of good and bad. The royals wear green suits. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – their parts much increased as the children-friendly jokers of the pack – wear clownish red.

Dark moments are managed deftly. The ghost is scary enough – primarily due to it being around eight foot tall – but is still clearly just a bedsheet. And the four cast members operating its head make no attempts at being hidden from sight. When each character dies – c’mon you do know what happens in Hamlet – the actors drape a handkerchief over their heads as they leave the stage.

It eschews all pretension and keeps the children engaged throughout.

Shakespeare Panto

There are moments that feel a little too “Shakespeare Panto.” During the pre-show welcoming, the actors all onstage asking what schools are in and over-waving to their new best friends in the audience seem like they are auditioning to be Play School presenters, circa 1975.

And I winced at the “Dad dancing” during the wedding party – though appreciate this is a very Encanto-esque way to introduce and explain each character’s role in proceedings. Scoring this early scene with MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This was a rather odd choice however. The choon may be nostalgic for many, but from the perspective of an 8-year-old, a song released 30 years ago is probably as ancient as Shakespeare himself.

Such things may make the adult theatregoer cringe a little, but I imagine they are spot-on for the intended audience. Cuter ways of achieving the same objective of inclusion are seen when a soliloquy is delivered as a boy-girl duet. And when the audience are asked to make the sounds of the forest for the play-within-a-play.

These little tricks manage to change pace, maintain attention and break down any distancing sense of ‘them’ (on stage) and ‘us’ (eating our sweets in the dark). At the same time, the text never feels like it is talking down to the children, or that it has been over-simplified. The company always feels like they are sharing the story with their audience, not just delivering it to them.

Inspired and Inspiring

Overall this is an inspired production. One I am sure will inspire an interest in theatre in at least some of these schoolchildren that they will take through to adulthood.

As grown-ups, we should be jealous that they get such a simple and delightful treat as this.

It’s something we should remember the next time we’re sitting through four hours of a Hamlet set in World War 2 that’s being delivered through the medium of interpretative dance.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

National Theatre, Olivier Theatre


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The Blurb

‘To be or not to be…’ Hamlet’s dad is dead. His uncle has taken over the kingdom and married Hamlet’s mum. The whole world feels like it’s turned upside down. A ghostly encounter reveals a dreadful deed has been done. Should Hamlet take revenge? ‘That is the question.’ Join us over the Easter holidays for this energetic and engaging retelling of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedy. Suitable for ages 8 – 12.

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