Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

A triumph in Elsinore


Stage2, Crescent Theatre, Birmingham


I HADN'T seen Stage2 perform before this production, to my shame, though I knew a little of its reputation.

I know that it has now reached its 27th year; that its current director, Liz Light, was one of the key founders; that it recruits young performers from seven to 21; performs plays of all kinds, from Swallows and Amazons to Shakespeare; that its activity never ceases, with workshops and imaginative training sessions throughout the year; that it will be touring to Italy this summer (presenting Steve Berkoff’s Requiem for Ground Zero); that it trains all its young performers in the art of backstage work and other technical skills; and that it is not afraid to make demands on its young performers.

But I wasn’t quite ready for the quality I encountered. Hamlet is one of the toughest things in the entire repertoire for anyone to tackle – let alone a youth company, even one as good as this.

The truth is, I found this superlative production difficult to fault. First, Liz Light’s direction, which seemed to overlook nothing: every move, every block, every gesture meticulously plotted.

Secondly, the striking lighting, much of it from above, so as to preserve a degree of gloom while picking out characters eerily, operated by James Fenton; when the light suddenly blazed from front of house for the players’ entry, the effect was electrifying. 

Thirdly, the impact of the set – an imposing rear stairway leading up to two artfully contrasted thrones for Claudius and Gertrude, a regal pink contrasted with grey, and an alcove on either side used to considerable effect. Fourthly, the gloriously chosen costumes.

This Hamlet looked good, felt good, was good.


Another success is the way the company tweaked the text to allow for additions and changes. Thus two of the most convincing performers, the snakelike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were played by girls, ostensibly conniving daughters of Claudius (Rosie Nisbet, Roni Mevorach); they added strength each time they appeared. Likewise the two small servants, hands behind backs, deferential, observant – Dillan McKeever, a terrific, well-spoken young performer, and Toma Hoffman equally articulate as Claudius’ attentive page.

Much depends on the leads. George Hannigan hamletas Claudius gave an object lesson in the delivery of his lines: both he and Tom Baker’s Polonius, another whose speechifying placed him in the top bracket, looked slightly awkward movers, yet they shone in every line they spoke, and while Baker caught the fussiness of Polonius, Hannigan offered a Claudius who was every bit the villain, one who recruited others to do his dirty work. Claudius rarely leaves the stairs; he seems to look on them as his security.

Liz Light uses the space available to great effect. From the start, the soldiery (Luca Hoffman, Bradley Layton, Jack Deakin, all quite characterful) and Horatio (Peter Collier’s diction a bit suspect, but then he improved vastly later when heard closer to) encounter the Ghost (Alex Butler) in the gallery that runs beside and above the audience. The spatial divide works perfectly. The rearstage side alcoves, earlier for Polonius and later for the Gertrude bedchamber scene, look good and are well lit. Hamlet’s knifing of Polonius looked a little abrupt, yet we make allowances for such make-believe because we are totally with the production.

One of the best things in this play is the chorus, the direction of which was so inventive and well thought out it looked as if they’d all received precise instructions. You could see it in the first court scene, where their blocking and positioning looked impeccable, and the way they clear the stage too, incredibly neatly but swiftly, was just perfect. They impressed with their precision and their stance and gestures every time any of them entered. It is part of Stage2’s plan to make use, where possible, of a large support cast. Here it worked a dream.

Because of their command of detail, their intimate conversations and stylish interaction, the chorus always made its mark. None of it looked actorese, or simply put on and feebly invented on the spot. This was one of the jauntiest, most believable stage-filling choruses I have ever seen. The acting was consistently first-class.

One of the thrills of this production are the Players. Partly the gripping enaction of the provocative play, The Murder of Gonzago, which sends Hannigan’s Claudius into apoplexy, as their actual arrival. Fenton’s lights, so subdued and deliberately demure for much of this Hamlet, suddenly come on full blaze.

From the back of the audience an astonishing array of clownish personnel descend to turn the stage into a feast of colour: multi-hued ribbons and beautifully designed costuming seize the stage and fill the scene with capering and humour and, again, many little details of impudent frivolity. The whole atmosphere lifts. It’s a wild harlequinade on a huge, explosive scale.

Leading the fray are Andrew Brown’s Player King, his movement full of strange jerks and quirks, but clearly the leader; and Ethan Tarr’s somewhat wild and scatty Player Queen, more dotty and impulsive than camp. Some of the smaller, minor multi-coloured characters who interact with these like Puck and his fairies add a lot, above all because they are meticulously drilled. The two girls who declaimed from the balcony were quite brilliant.


A comparably delicious scene is the Gravediggers: Aidan Richards is surrounded by a neat little huddle of chorus characters, and indulges in a positive feast of crazy chicanery, very funny, beautifully poised, and all splendidly bringing out the irony introduced by Hamlet’s entry and recognition of Yorick’s skull. Richards generated a hilarious one-man show, played out with accomplices. Every move seemed tightly worked out, the scene cleverly blocked. It perfectly exemplified the deftness and stylishness of Stage2’s preparatory work.

There are of course the women, each trapped in their way. Priya Edwards established herself early on in Gertrude’s pleading; a slightly frail, put-upon delicate queen; her green velvet attire is typical of the quality of costuming in this show: endless variety for members of the chorus, the servants, the soldiers, the principals: a lot of black, but also maroon, beige, gold braid (for Claudius) and more greens. There is a superb consistency in these costumes: not one of them looked out of place or second best. One sensed a court that was indeed rich and comfortable. But this Gertrude always looked vulnerable.

Laura Dowsett plays Ophelia, and she – pregnant at the outset, as we see from a small opening vignette – produces a tender, by no means weedy, at times wilful figure. She interacts well in a scene with Dan Nash’s confident, slightly overbearing Laertes, whose return scene with the chorus is one of the best, just as his plotting with Claudius is vividly done. Once or twice facing upstage we lose Ophelia’s words; but when she speaks more expressively, and from front stage, she is beautifully clear as well. It is in the mad scene that she scores wonderfully; utterly believable, unerringly tragic.

The character we have not mentioned so far is, of course, Hamlet. The casting in this show is incredibly successful, but the triumph is awarding Mark James the part of Hamlet. Scene after scene is lifted by his presence and authority. Early on there is his interplay with Polonius – part serious, part mocking.

There is the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in which the humour and double entendres come close to the buffoonish exchanges of the Fool and Lear. But it is the soliloquies – ‘frailty thy name is woman’, ‘to put an antic disposition on’, ‘my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth’ – where the extraordinary variability and variety of James’s speaking becomes clear.

It is astonishingly sensitive. He can drop his voice to next to nothing, or modulate his pitch and intensity, and produce a whole kaleidoscope of different sounds and levels. The result is that he’s always interesting to listen to: you cling on his every word, every rasp, every whisper

If anything pulls all these top-level qualities together, it is the final scene. The chorus is more alive than ever – every member, small or large, is pouring him or herself into the excitement of the fight. The actual swordplay between James (Hamlet) and Nash (Laertes) is nailbiting: utterly professional, thanks to chorographer Wayne Fitzsimons and his aide Rosie Nisbet. The processes by which the woundings take place, the poison gets passed around and revenge is wrought are violent, savage, poignant and genuinely lifelike. The blocking of the doomed Laertes and Hamlet is a masterpiece. It’s certainly one of the best Hamlet final scenes I have seen.  To 18-04-15

Roderic Dunnett


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