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Hamlet review at Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol – ‘little sense of risk’

Scene from Hamlet-at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol. Photo: Mark Douet Scene from Hamlet-at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol. Photo: Mark Douet
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When Hamlet talks seductively of laying his head in the lap of a ‘country’ girl, a ripple of laughter is the expected response. But such moments of light relief are few in Andrew Hilton’s production, which opens this year’s Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory season.

It’s a very safe and plain production, with little sense of risk or a fresh concept. Alan Mahon’s boarding-school Hamlet pitches his performance at a level of such anger from the beginning that there’s very little emotional space to explore; he’s a fairly unsympathetic figure as a result. Instead, it’s Isabella Marshall’s Ophelia who shines in this ensemble, passionately screaming and singing, lipstick smeared across her face.

While the first half feels slightly stilted, as if the cast are simply going through the motions, the second half is far cleaner, with Matthew Graham’s rich lighting design creating gliding crossovers and adding pace.

The overall design is delicate and thoughtful. Max Johns’ Elizabethan costumes are exquisite, the golden capes echoing the worn, gilded thrones on the minimalist set. The use of costumed ASMs for scene changes is another lovely touch.

Hamlet and Laertes’ duel is made thrilling by the in-the-round staging, with Hamlet replacing sword for cape as he becomes a matador and we the blood-thirsty spectators. Many of the deaths, however, lack impact; Polonius’ stabbing in particular feels oddly comical.

Hilton’s production as a whole lacks spark and relevance – and there’s frustratingly little to make it stand out from other recent productions of Hamlet.

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Beautifully costumed but frustratingly safe production of Shakespeare’s tragedy