Gareth Thomas in Hamlet

From the Edinburgh Evening News, Monday, Feb. 5. There's a picture (not of Gareth) with the review.

Nothing tragic in this fine retelling

SHAKESPEARE'S great tragedy of a son coming to terms with the death of his father and then revenging it must have had as many different interpretations as it has had productions.

Some directors have tried to bedazzle their audiences with spine-chilling ghosts and violent, swashbuckling characters. Others, like David Mark Thomas in this refined production at the Brunton, have tried to understand the motivations of the young Prince of Denmark - and used this to tell the story.

This is a Hamlet which goes back to the basics of Shakespeare's text, relying heavily on the dialogue to reveal the narrative.

If this attitude sometimes makes for a thin production, the actors provide the depth and are tools to the audience's understanding of the archaic language.

The costumes have an elegant, Edwardian cut to them. They almost force the characters to mask their feelings with the veneer of civilisation.

And it is left to the blood-red set, with a golden breastplate from a suit of armour perched high at the back, to emphasise the basic, animal instincts, of the characters.

In the title role, Liam Brennan takes his main cue for Hamlet from the fact that the young Dane is a philosophy student at Wittenburg, which in 1600, when the play was written, was one of Europe's most radical universities.

His Hamlet is a man of thoughts and words before actions.

He is stupefied by sorrow at the death of his father.

And is incensed that his mother, Gertrude, is marrying his father's brother, Claudius, so quickly after her husband's death.

After a slightly shaky start, Brennan quickly settles into the role. His delivery of the lines is clear and he makes them easy to understand.

Nor do his asides to the audience sound contrived but are quite in keeping with the conventional nature of the whole production.

Claudius is a much more of a man of action. Although, as played by Michael Mackenzie he, too, is somewhat troubled by his conscience. Which is no more than the incestuous old murderer should be.

Mackenzie's ability to deliver his lines as naturally as he would a modern speech is matched only by Gareth Thomas in the role of Polonius, the doddering old fool of a courtier who not only spies on Hamlet for Claudius, but also tries to stifle the existing romance between Hamlet and his own daughter, Ophelia.

In many ways, Thomas is the best thing about the production.

Like Brennan, he finds new meaning to the lines with a simple gesture or glance.

But he really excels in his comic timing, creating laughs without overplaying the lines.

One of the Brunton Theatre Company's trademarks is their use of members of the youth theatre in their professional productions. And the four young actors who play the travelling players, used by Hamlet to mirror Claudius' foul deed in the play-within-the-play, are not asked to overstretch their abilities.

Where the production does suffer, however, is in its pace towards the end.

The first half works very well, with the actors taking their time. But Act Two is too rushed. A fault compounded by the tendency of all the cast to become over-wrought during their most impassioned speeches.

For all its faults, this is a production which is redeemed by clarity, truth and an often effortless faith in Shakespeare's ability to tell a story.

Run ends February 17

Thom Dibdin

Monday, 5th February 2001

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Last updated on 18th of March 2001.