Rhys Morgan reviews Article 19’s production of Hamlet, a witty and subversive take on one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays
Before I formally begin this review, it is relevant to confess that I don’t tend to like Hamlet. I don’t mean the play, I mean the character. In too many productions, particularly smaller productions, Hamlet is portrayed as the ultimate intellectual, the only sane man left in a morally bankrupt world. The other characters can often do nothing but listen, enraptured, as he waxes philosophical about the nature of man in a way that suggests self-indulgence rather than internal conflict. This is a problem that arises not from the text, but from a conscious choice to portray Hamlet as a patient intellectual, rather than a man crippled by his own self-doubt. Too often, I feel no anticipation for the play’s end because Hamlet himself seems more concerned with showing off than avenging his father.
It is, therefore, the innovation of Elliott McDowell’s Hamlet that makes Article 19’s production of Hamlet so enthralling. Director Katie Paterson boldly deviates from the run-of-the-mill portrayal of the young prince by making Hamlet distinctly dislikeable. I wish to clarify that this is by no means a bad thing. In fact, Elliott McDowell’s petulant, bitter Hamlet is a tour de force. He’s flippant, repellent, and mocking. I couldn’t stand him, but I couldn’t stop watching. McDowell shows impressive versatility here, able to transition at a moment’s notice from a wisecracking cynic to a spitting ball of rage and back again. Both he and Rebecca Vernon’s Horatio demonstrate excellent comedic chops. A particular favourite moment of mine is when Hamlet is attempting to make jokes to Horatio, who responds but makes an unenthused face, to the audience’s delight. To emphasise how refreshing this moment was, I will say that I have never before seen a production in which Horatio, with one facial expression, tells Hamlet that he’s not as clever as he thinks he is. In a world of doe-eyed Horatios who fawn over Hamlet like spaniels, Rebecca Vernon offers a breath of fresh air and brings a much-needed authenticity to the role.
As well as engaging whole-heartedly with some of the more comic aspects of the play, Katie Paterson chose to engage with some of the more unsavoury facets of Hamlet’s character. Such lines as ‘frailty thy name is woman’ receive special emphasis here, and McDowell is at his most animated when screaming in the face of frightened women. This is deeply unpleasant to witness, which is the point, but, aside from one key incident added into a confrontation between Ophelia and Hamlet, it doesn’t cross the boundaries of taste. My one complaint with the production’s choices here is that, whilst McDowell’s versatility is commendable, the tonal shift between scenes can sometimes be quite jarring; it’s difficult to laugh at Hamlet’s wit less than thirty seconds after seeing him violently threaten someone.
As for the rest of the cast, the quality of acting is very high. Kalifa Taylor’s Ophelia and Touwa Craig Dunn’s Laertes deserve particular praise for their heartbreaking transformations throughout the play’s action. I must also commend Katy Owens for adding a few sinister strands into her portrayal of Gertrude. I’ve always suspected, at least slightly, that Gertrude had something to do with Ophelia’s death, and Katy Owens’ nuanced depiction fed that suspicion without being too obvious. Chavonne Brown’s role as the ghost of Hamlet’s father must also be mentioned. Brown’s heavy, sweeping movements and cadence do an admirable job of rendering his scenes eerie, despite the slightly goofy train of people (ghostly servants?) following him around.
Regarding the production, the minimal set is used well, although some of the scene transitions were a little awkward. The sound and lighting adequately serve their purpose of highlighting the drama, but don’t achieve anything particularly inspiring, although in the interest of fairness I must acknowledge that this is extremely difficult to do on a small budget. Aside from Fortinbras’ long trench coat which seemed to me a little bland, the costumes are very well put together. I particularly liked the choice to put the grieving Ophelia in a hoodie and tracksuit; this serves to create a more genuine grief than what we often see on stage, complimenting Kalifa Taylor’s haunting performance.
To conclude, Article 19 have created a great show and an intriguingly hateable titular character that they should be proud of. To stage Shakespeare’s most well-known play is no easy feat and, despite some marginal hiccups, Article 19’s version of Hamlet is definitely worth seeing.
Article by Rhys Morgan