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Black Theatre Live’s Hamlet review at Watford Palace Theatre – ‘a muddled production’

Scene from Hamlet at Watford Palace Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It’s long overdue, Hamlet with an all-black cast, and while Black Theatre Live’s production has a lot to like about it – including an interesting take on Gertrude – there is a lot of muddle too.

Raphael Sowole, still very much at the beginning of his career, is a quiet, exasperated Hamlet. He chugs along andante, with little variation in his tone of voice and with static poise. He shouts occasionally, though those outbursts are less effective than his otherwise gentle manner. His strained and permeating sadness works well, even if it takes some of the sense of occasion out of the big speeches. He just gets on with “To be or not to be” with no fuss – though not much illumination of the speech either.

Gertrude gets an interesting perspective here. She dances giddily with Claudius, with lots of grinding and smooching in front of the courtiers. She’s clearly in love with him, and hasn’t really thought about how it might impact her son. It’s a relatable way of updating that particular strand of the play.

There are major problems with the production as a whole, though. Inconsistency is an issue: it’s all very trad, and set in some non specific time, until Hamlet uses a laptop towards the end. Cleo Harris-Seaton’s design turns Elsinore into a kind of church, with an illuminated crucifix centre stage and Claudius dressed like a pastor, but not to much avail.

Some really clunky and clumsy scene changes disrupt the flow, and a couple of performances border dangerously on outright hamminess. Although Mark Norfolk’s slightly reworked version of the text makes the essential story very clear, while keeping all the famous bits in the right places, Jeffrey Kissoon’s production, as a whole, needs tightening up.

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Britain’s first Hamlet with an all-black cast is engaging in places but muddled