MY WEEK (October 16, 2014): Shakespeare’s best tragedy gets an exotic makeover

Picture by Stevie Pickering
Picture by Stevie Pickering

It’s often said that a great writer’s name will live on forever.

Anyone who doubts this can have a good think about William Shakespeare. 2014 is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and after countless adaptations, the appeal of the Bard’s work is still very strong.

Last week, for example, I went out to watch The Archway Theatre Company’s version of Hamlet, which had a fresh take on the material...

Hamlet, The Archway Theatre, Horley, Thursday, October 2

In these days of the internet and cheap air travel Denmark doesn’t really seem like an exotic land anymore.

So, in Peter Westmacott’s version of Hamlet, by The Archway Theatre Company, the action has been relocated to feudal Japan.

It’s an effective stylistic choice. Japan doesn’t just give the production a foreign feel, it helps to underline the play’s themes of duty and honour. The ominous music between scenes, which uses traditional Japanese instruments, gives the piece a real sense of dread too.

The acting, as I’ve come to expect from The Archway, is of a high standard throughout.

Greg Field leaves a lasting impression as Hamlet, drawing out his character’s cowardly aspects to present a young man who over-analyses to the point of sickliness. He takes his time with possibly the two most important soliloquies of the play – “What a piece of work is a man” and “To be or not to be” – giving a sense that Hamlet is almost overwhelmed by his own words.

Gary Andrews is strong as Claudius, bringing to life a man wracked with guilt for his crimes, but unable to atone for them. He makes it clear that Claudius can only go through the motions of redeeming himself, which will inevitably lead to his damnation.

Adrian Bailey is convincingly fearsome as Laertes. He’s good at conveying Laertes’s murderous hatred for Hamlet after the tragic hero’s actions lead to the destruction of his family. Adrian also gets to show off his puppeteer skills, when a ghost, represented by a life-size model in white shogun armour, sweeps onto the stage.

David Rankin is memorable as Polonius, playing a level-headed but warm father, which makes his early demise even more tragic.

However, it’s arguably Elodie Bass who puts in the play’s best performance as Ophelia. Her transformation from quiet, timid and obedient daughter to raving madwoman, is bleak, disturbing and, most importantly, believable.

Hamlet is known for being a tragedy that’s almost completely devoid of hope, but there still some laughs to be found in the darkness. James Abbott and Laura Martin, for example, are great as the cheery gravediggers. They see the results of mayhem and madness, but still find the energy to crack jokes.

Like most Archway productions, Hamlet is an ensemble piece and all cast members pull their weight. Jonathan Montrell, Mandy Humphrey, Rick Hall and Trefor Levins all put in performances that increase the play’s dramatic power.

No play is ever perfect though and I have to admit that it’s a little jarring when the characters still reference the script’s original place names.

Something is still rotten in the state of Demark despite the unmistakably Japanese environment. However, it could actually be more distracting for those familiar with Hamlet if the place names differ from the ones in the original text.

Besides, the place names don’t come up that often, so it’s best to just enjoy this classic play and accept its striking new aesthetic.

To see more of Stevie Pickering’s photography visit