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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Directed by Elle While and Federay Holmein a collaborative process involving all twelve-strong cast, this is a non-conceptual ground-zero reading. Ellan Parry creates an array of costumery –rich maroons, yellows and increasingly rich black; stage props are minimal. Composer James Maloney deploys percussion, but its his trombones, bass trombones and director Adrian Woodward’s trumpet that create a darkly rich fanfare pattern opened out jazzily at the end.


There’s an innate playfulness in this twelve-strong company’s ‘starting with nothing’ approach to their twinned Hamlet and As You Like It that fits more easily with the latter. I wonder if it’s us. The whole construct of performative gender, or gender-fluid casting comes with a collective psyche trailing a tiny tin can of patriarchy. Fine for comedy, but tragedy? The Globe’s Hamlet raises questions beyond itself. Think of an all-adult-male Hamlet, and not all-male where boys’ gendering plays out as something other. Easier to think of Twelfth Night. This production shifts the gears of tragedy.


Hamlet as character is a different matter – we’ve had over 120 years of women playing the role and Michelle Terry’s clear-headed, speed-read rationale as is intelligent and mercurial a Hamlet as you could wish. And there’s choking grief, a barely-suppressed anguish though almost telegraphed: Terry bites down on certain words, where ‘know not seems’ comes up like bile. If perhaps in this (not very cut) two hours forty-five traversal you miss the plangent solitude of ‘Now I am alone’ to 1500 people, it’s because the whole production’s restless, driven to dispatch itself straight.


For Terry’s Hamlet relief comes from an eternal night-watch: evidence. Velocity helps here. There’s a something-unsettled febrility to this Denmark with its impress of shipwrights, fear-flurried entrances and exits, from the first midnight watch through to spies like Reynaldo for Laertes (a detail observed here where some cut it), to the pair detailed to trail Hamlet. Terry’s Hamlet viscerally takes upon herself ‘Denmark’: the old Denmark in the cellarage, Denmark the state, Claudius or young Hamlet as ‘Denmark’. Terry and the rest make much of swearing, as does Colin Hurley’s ambling, rather benign Ghost – and (later) Gravedigger – from his cellarage. There’s pith and moment in Terry’s Hamlet taking this into the bounded nutshell of her conscience. Catrin Aaron’s passionately devoted Horatio makes a strong rational foil here and later, centring Terry’s wild Hamlet.


We’re hurtled over speed-bumps where it might have been more reckless to slow down and believe in a few of the moments; and there was one remarkable one. Its where Jack Laskey’s Player (the Player King) speaks trippingly off the tongue the death of Priam. It can be played for laughs; not here. There’s hush and reverent pause as Laskey, whose Rosalind is distinguished, marks the still point of the whole production. He promises much.


There’s a world of spontaneous reactions to daily circumstances making each performance even more creative than usual. In the performance I saw deafening helicopters beat down till ‘Norwegians!’ was cried up and the audience roar deafened the choppers. Though where in the team’s As You Like It there’s a skin less, a stitch fewer to hide behind, here we’re armoured in Terry’s speed read of words words words.


Elle While and Federay Holmes  background themselves as directors; leaders might describe them better. There is though more than a collaborative process, a guiding on the otherwise bare stage the equally elusive Ellan Parry creates. That’s a place full of fast-moving stools and fluid scenes, no grand platforming into the groundlings. Parry also creates an array of costumery – rich maroons, yellows and increasingly richly inlaid black as well as actors’ own clothes, less in evidence than in As You Like It. Stage props are minimal.


Composer James Maloney deploys percussion, but it’s his trombones, bass trombones and director Adrian Woodward’s trumpet that create a darkly rich fanfare pattern opened out jazzily at the end. It’s hieratic, splendid and not a little bleak.


Shubham Saraf’s Ophelia is one of the best things here. A forthrightness that turns in on itself, having given too much away. Saraf convinces us Ophelia’s strong passions and unbridled honesty can give way to affliction in such a rigidly-bounded world.


Richard Katz as Polonius (and the Priest) is too energetic, too young to suggest the memory of having been intelligent, speaking rapidly and almost to the point. There’s a comedy undercutting this, mainly in his distracted running from one thing to another and his idée fixe about Hamlet and Ophelia.


There’s a good scene in his and Bettrys Jones’ Laertes parting, but Jones makes much of Laertes’ choleric hastiness and touching reconcilement between him and Hamlet.


Some un-mined performances never quite get their chance. James Garnon’s clarion-voiced Claudius is more anguished than apoplectic, particularly trying to pray. An almost benign figure his final gesture, as in the Ince Almeida Hamlet last year, is strangely reconciliatory, embracing his fate. One never quite believes his sealing those letters to England.


Helen Schlesinger’s Gertrude is more formidable in her refusals including her insistence on drinking the chalice – indeed the misprised scene between the couple here is the best, since there’s little to show their sexual infatuation that other performances can bring.


There’s more tenderness from the Ghost and it’s beautifully observed. Against Terry and an unseen Hurley Schlesinger’s appalled, suddenly cradling Terry where Hurley holds Terry’s free hand. Families and how to survive them. Such intimacy in this scene has recently moved away from the Oedipal, like the family clinch in the Almeida production. Here, the whole family ghost themselves back into what they were (Gertrude’s obliviousness to old Hamlet notwithstanding) and indeed what they’ll become. It’s another welcome oasis. Afterwards in all the heltering you’re not led to believe that Gertrude believes Hamlet. Ah, there’s the ache.


Pearce Quigley’s Rosencrantz has less chance to play off against Guildenstern’s Nadia Nadarajh who uses British Sign Language, than Laskey’s Rosalind when Nadarajh is Celia. Brief promising moments between them are simply hurtled past. Tanika Yearwood’s Marcellus and Reynaldo offset her larger roles in As You Like It though there’s a delicious beat between her laying down one character and assuming another.


This is a Hamlet of starts, and occasionally of nothing long. But it’s a thrilling discovery-of-self that Terry gestures to, like those internal monologues always swifter than what’s spoken, that do get spoken here. What’s missing perhaps is how these other discoveries right and left of Hamlet find their time, their strands in the architecture; they can occasionally feel like set-pieces a duo of actors devised, unified happily by tempo. Collaborative energies have much to offer, though tragedy perhaps takes more time to bed in. But much has been proved, from interpretive to gender fluidity in tragic action, that sets a privilege on being in at a beginning.