The prospect of Michelle Terry playing Hamlet is immensely exciting. She has shown herself to be a Shakespearean actor of great delicacy and intelligence in numerous roles and was a powerful and commanding Henry V at the Open Air Theatre.
But while her Hamlet – the second production in her inaugural season as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe – contains moments of wit, pathos and pain, it’s not a performance likely to sear itself into your memory.
Perhaps as a result of the ensemble-led approach to the creation of these opening productions, her Hamlet doesn’t dominate the stage. She’s always engaging. She brings out new colours in the text, but feels rather restrained in the role.
It’s a production that places clarity of verse and emotion over directorial fireworks. One of the most striking elements is Terry’s costume. When she assumes her antic disposition, she also dons a white clown suit with a jagged lipstick grin. By making Hamlet a jester, it licenses her to behave in different ways. It shifts her status in the family. It grants her power and marks her apart. Laughter can be a weapon after all. It’s an interesting idea that is frustratingly under-explored.
Alongside Terry, Shubham Saraf gives a performance of grace as Ophelia, Richard Katz is a genial Polonius and James Garnon makes Claudius into a pomaded king-figure, puffed up rather than malevolent.
Though they have less to do than in As You Like It, Pearce Quigley and Nadia Nadarajah are, once more, two of the most entertaining and interesting presences on stage. Their double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is made more complex by the way it incorporates British Sign Language.
But while it’s refreshing to see more weight placed on the other characters and relationships in the play, it feels as if Terry’s performance gets a bit subsumed. I suppose I’m guilty of wanting it both ways.
This is a relatively compact, accessible Hamlet – solid rather than revelatory. If there is a thread that connects this production with As You Like It (the other opening production in Terry’s inaugural season) it’s one of the costume we put on in our lives – the clown, the soldier, the scholar, woman, man.
That said, the performance of gender is less of a feature here and while Nadarajah is definitely presented as male, with a beard and everything, Terry is more androgynous in her attire as Hamlet.
What’s abundantly clear is that these plays will in no way be damaged or dishonoured if the actors don’t physically resemble the characters, quite the opposite in fact – this kind of casting opens up the plays in fascinating ways, it brings new things to the surface.
Theatre is a transporting medium, a collective imaginative pact, and I’m pretty sure Shakespeare was more invested in the content of a person’s soul than their breeches. His plays are for everyone and, if that’s the take-home message of these otherwise unadventurous productions, it’s a valuable one.