10 Natalie Quatermass

Hamlet played by Natalie Quatermass.
Directed by Dan Meigh & Iona Farley.
Fights by Eleanor Stephens.

Twice in the past couple of days in relation to this weblog and well, I suppose you could call it 'the project', people have asked me, 'Why Hamlet?' In answering I repeated some of what I wrote in the introduction about the man who'd seen sixty-eight of them, remembering something about each of them and me wondering if I could beat that - which I still do even if with all the audio and video and film and television I could possibly be cheating.

But I also said something new. That it was like listening to your favourite album. I love watching Hamlet. I love the language, the story, the fact that it has a range of facets that it's an investigation into what it is to be human and about what could potentially lead us to lose our sanity. Like the your favourite album I can quote whole sections of it, but never as well as the best performances. And I also don't want to listen or watch it so much that it eventually becomes a chore (which is why the posting rate here is fairly irregular).

It's also as I mentioned in that introduction the most flexible of plays; with the acreage of text it can be cut and interpreted, as this blog has already demonstrated in a whole vast range of different ways, the directors and actors bringing to it quite rightly their own biases and interests in ways that I'm not sure you can with that many other of Shakespeare's plays. You can play it funny and serious for example, reduce it to being a chamber piece about family or project it out to a much wider military canvas.

Last night I saw my first live Hamlet in years, at the Crypt Concert Hall at Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral. It was the work of 'Off The Ground', a youth theatre company celebrating its tenth season with this as its finale. Chatting to a family beforehand I discovered it was to be a female Hamlet, the group were really good and that I was in for a treat. And I was.

The Crypt Concert Hall is an amazing space. It's built into a section of the structure constructed from the designs by the Cathedral's original architect Sir Edwin Lutyen (the story of whose grand design can be read here) and works almost as a worship space in and of itself with ceilings patterned out in red brick in concentric circles and tiny domes. Although man made it seems deceptively organic, a classic place for this piece to appear, a long chamber with a stage constructed at the end.

After some first night hiccups with the lighting and background noise and when to begin the performance what developed was one of the most passionate and engrossing readings of the play I've seen in a while, thematically focused and wonderfully staged. If the sound of foot traffic on the stage and the acoustics of the hall sometimes got in the way of the verse (now and then voices would be lost in the back of those domes) the sheer belief in the text and the quality of the performances from the young cast more than made up for it.

Natalie Quatermass's Hamlet was inspired, initially emphasised the bitterness of the character before (I think) feigning madness in order to throw her (his?) antagonists off the scent of his (her?) real intent. There was freshness and fearlessness to her, changing emotion on a dime, the stage almost darkening when she wasn't around. Still fitting perfectly into the ensemble, she was an electric presence and compulsive to watch.

The intelligence of her choices could be enjoyed in the fishmonger scene when you could see the moment, just before she gave Ryan Radley-Lawley's prating Polonius his new job title, when she decided that rational discourse was simply not going to get her where she (he?) needed to be. The biggest belly laughs from the audience happened during this scene, the comic timing between the two of them absolutely catching the humour of the scene.

Perhaps selecting Quatermass to play the Dane wasn't a stunt or to particularly bring new thematic tone within the play. It's simply that, like Frances De La Torre before her, she had the emotional range for the part so why let femininity be a barrier? Her costume was gender neutral - black shirt and trousers before the trip to England, khakis afterwards (half of the cast appeared in military uniform) contrasting perfectly against Ophelia's dresses.

Which isn't to say that there weren't one or two moments which didn't resonated differently with a feminine energy from that part of the stage particularly in relation to the characters relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude. But in this reading she still manage to dominate both, noticeably with the latter. Frances Robinson portraying the character almost as a trophy wife, won by Claudius from Hamlet Snr upon his demise, lacking her usual forthrightness only finally rebelling against Claudius in her final moments, her independence drowned in the poisoned cup.

That said, with the exception of an introductory dance routine and military costuming, Dan Meigh & Iona Farley offered a fairly traditional approach to the play with perhaps slightly more stress given to the plot. It was noticeable that despite presenting a cut text, that the material often left out of some presentations was left in here, with Fortinbras in particular being well served and The Mousetrap appearing in its entirety, the play within a play's language given the space to breath. I particularly loved the initial appearance of the players on stage, looking for all the world like the cast of Hair in their studenty fashions.

Maria Welsh's Rosencrantz and Joseph Crawford's Gildenstern in particular were given so much stage time that they seemed like much more rounded characters in their own right, the eyes and ears of Bill Pasterfield's suitably villainous Claudius. Welsh and Crawford double teamed throughout, playing off one another in their reactions to the events surrounding them developing into very sympathetic figures right up to their demise, presented actually on stage during Hamlet's description of their termination to Jake Dodd's loyal Horatio enunciated by the crack of a gunshot.

That same gunshot could be heard ringing out as Hamlet murdered Polonius. Something highlighted in this production was the swiftness of the murder of Ophelia's father after Hamlet is unable to do this same to his own father, almost as though the frustration of not being able to go through with the first act is carried over into the second. Quatermass's Hamlet showed genuine remorse but rightly left Polonius to rot as she (he?) underlined to Gertrude, his (her?) mother, a water drink of a woman exactly what her husband was capable of.

Another striking moment was inevitably Ophelia's decent into madness, rendered here with an unseen cast providing a chorus. Really touching and effective and helped immeasurably by Sarah Banks's Ophelia finally given a chance to shine. Regular readers will know that one of my few criticisms of the play is that Ophelia material always seems slightly insubstantial. I always wish she had more to do, more stage time to give the actress (actor?) a fairer crack of the whip.

Here that was partially solved by having Banks on stage during 'To Be Or Not To Be' reacting to the words and the ensuing remembrances scene underscored once more the real key to the production, the chemistry between the actors - despite everything, you could really believe these two have had such a relationship. See also the Polonius advice scene when she and James Marshall's Laertes reacted wittily to their father's advice.

All of which reminded me why I love Hamlet and why I'm conducting this project. Partly it's an impossible search for the perfect production but it's also an opportunity to observe the fact that even after four hundred odd years it still has new mysteries to reveal and can still be presented in dozens of ways. It's also a thumping good revenge thriller, a ghost story and as this production also demonstrated a thematic exploration of fatherhood. The fact that I'm only fitting in that observation at the end of the review just underscores how rich this interpretation was.

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