Hamlet, Shakespeare's Globe, London<br/>And the Horse You Rode In On, Pit Theatre, London<br/>Kingdom of Earth, Print Room, London

The play's the thing in which to make do and multitask
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The Independent Culture

It's right at the heart of Hamlet.

The travelling players receive the Prince of Denmark's advice for troupers ("Suit the action to the word"), then perform The Mousetrap at his command. That is, of course, the play-within-the-play that mirrors Claudius's fratricide and his marriage to Old Hamlet's widow, Gertrude.

But what a clever move it is – on the part of director Dominic Dromgoole – to frame this Globe production as if it's all being performed by an itinerant acting company. His unstarry cast looks like a no-frills 1940s corps. They've only a few planks to create the opening battlements scene. With their costumes rationed too, they just slip Elizabethan cloaks on over their brown overalls or tweed skirts. It's Make Do and Multitask, with eight performers juggling about 30 parts.

Dromgoole's Hamlet is, itself, a touring production, hitting the road after its run at the Globe. But he's not just suiting his staging to that mission: he discovers a further playlet within the play. In Ophelia's mad scene, he has her set up a mini-stage for her folk singing. Shushing her audience, Claudius and Gertrude, she parallels the previously interrupted travelling players.

The doubling can pack an emotional punch as well, with fast-flowing scenes. Simon Armstrong stalks the battlements as Old Hamlet's Ghost then, in a blink, turns into his usurping twin, Claudius. The latter drapes an unwelcome, chummy arm round Joshua McGuire's Hamlet, a pint-sized student prince with manic wit and mood swings.

The staging of The Mousetrap is even more ingenious, with Armstrong and Amanda Hadingue not only watching it (as Claudius and Gertrude) but also appearing in it (as the Player King and Queen). They role-swap as a curtain swishes back and forth (operated by Hamlet as he snipes at Ophelia).

The downside is that many of the individual characters aren't finessed or psychologically probed. Jade Anouka's Ophelia doesn't go convincingly mad, twirling her hands like fins. Gertrude is bland. The production loses momentum and never becomes heartbreaking.

Nonetheless, it's strong on comedy, and after so many star-studded Hamlets, I rather liked this one for getting back to spit-and-sawdust basics. Although no match for Rory Kinnear's NT Prince of Denmark, for a newcomer, McGuire is impressively assured. He can change the key of a scene from major to minor in a split second. Commendable.

The physical theatre company Told by an Idiot promised to push its physical comedy into far darker terrain with And the Horse You Rode In On. Directed by Paul Hunter, this devised piece plaits together several story threads as various bombers and radical militants from different historical eras appear to converge on Grace Brothers department store, as in Are You Being Served?.

This results in inventive, kidult digressions. Hunter's cast turn bad wigs into posh ladies' lapdogs. They climb the set and entertainingly dub each other's scenes from the sidelines. But this is just scampering around the serious issue of terror. Throwing in a couple of slow-motion explosions in the last few minutes and tiny snippets of victims' comments is idiotically unsatisfactory.

One brother may be prepared to kill the other for his estate in Kingdom of Earth. Tennessee Williams's late 1960s play – given a rare airing by director Lucy Bailey – is set on a dilapidated, Mississippi farmstead. Flood waters are about to engulf the valley. Joseph Drake's effeminate Lot, nonetheless, fetches up with a bride in tow. Myrtle (Fiona Glascott) is a showgirl he barely knows and he's using her to spite his macho half-brother, nicknamed Chicken (David Sturzaker). The latter is determined to get his hands on Lot's property, as payback for being ill-treated as a bastard son. Lot is terminally sick, coughing up blood and juddering around like a ghoul in his late mother's ballgowns, while Chicken moves in on Myrtle.

The play's sexual explicitness and its protagonists' bigotry must have packed a punch in 1967. But Bailey's production just leaves a nasty taste, while never generating much tension. Her actors aren't bad, but she hasn't paced either their comic timing or their predatory menace.

'Hamlet' (020-7401 9919) to 9 Jul, then touring; 'And the Horse You Rode in On' (020-7638 8891) to 14 May, then Brighton Festival (01273 709709) to 21 May; 'Kingdom of Earth' (0844 477 1000) to 28 May

Next Week:

Kate Bassett sees if playwright Jon Fosse predicted aright that everyone would hate the Young Vic production of his I Am the Wind

Theatre Choice

Shakespeare's "lost play" Cardenio (probably a collaboration) gets a witty, vibrant staging by RSC's Greg Doran, at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon (to 6 Oct). Trevor Nunn's revival of Flare Path – Rattigan's portrait of Second World War pilots and their anxious wives – is heartbreakingly poignant. At Haymarket Theatre Royal (extended to 11 Jun).

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