The point of staging an outdoor production is surely that one exploits to the maximum the natural features of the arena. It is therefore surprising that the Northcott Theatre designer, Becky Hawkins has chosen to fill Exeter's Rougemont Gardens with such an assemblage of runways and battlements that the natural setting is almost entirely incidental. As the actors stride down wooden walkways and across plastic ramparts, it is sometimes only the chattering of a police helicopter and the occasional heckling seagull that reminds one that this is not really a theatre.
Although the set is excellent for the play, it could be relocated to any space with sufficient depth – be it an aircraft hanger, or the deck of the Ark Royal – without the need to change one move or rethink any of the business whatsoever. Which is a shame, since the opportunity to use such a Sylvan setting should surely not go wasted.
The solid monumentality of the set also seems to inspire some massively ponderous acting. Far too many actors in this production give the kind of leaden delivery of text and flaccid rendering of character that turns generations of schoolchildren off Shakespeare's plays, and at times threatens to put the ham into Hamlet. This is the Shakespeare of the classroom and the school trip: sound and fury, signifying nothing.
And yet among all this proclamation and declamation, there shines one outstanding talent. Mark Healy's presence in this production is like Ryan Giggs running out for Exeter City. His Hamlet has depth and verisimilitude, and Healy is masterful in using the lines, rather than letting them use him. His soliloquies are not proclaimed front-on, like Pavarotti at the Met, but are played as the musings of a man talking to himself. The "To be or not to be" speech becomes a discourse with a mute Ophelia, making it a diatribe which adds another stepping stone on her path to madness. More importantly, Healy's performance enables those unfamiliar with the play to realise that Hamlet, over and above being a "classic", is a damn good yarn with some excellent psychological drama.
To be fair, Healy is not completely lost in a sea of "set-text" acting. Just as Exeter City includes footballers who, in time, could move up to the Premier League, so this production contains some sound supporting players. Susie Trayling's Ophelia is brittle and friable from the start, and segues smoothly into total derangement. William Oxborrow delivers a solid and personable Horatio, taking the place of the utterly superfluous Fortinbras to deliver the closing lines in this production. Oxborrow's performance is all the more impressive for the fact that he continued, despite clearly suffering a painful knee injury in the first scene. But then, as Shakespeare himself might have said under similar circumstances, you can't make a Hamlet without breaking legs.
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