Theatre in Wales

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Pace, Purpose, Brilliant Visual Clarity

At Theatr Clwyd

Hamlet- Clwyd Theatr Cymru , Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru , February 11, 2015
At Theatr Clwyd by Hamlet- Clwyd Theatr Cymru “What Can’t Be Found on the Internet” was the title of a pungent article by Bryan Appleyard of 30th November last year. When something really matters, he wrote, it most likely won’t be there with a few clicks on a search engine. As a maxim it certainly holds true for the critical record on Terry Hands’ seventeen-year tenure at the helm of Theatr Clwyd Cymru. Only one critic of real heft used to make the trip with regularity and his record, of unbroken acclaim, is out of plain sight.

John Peter, long-standing critic for the Sunday Times now retired, was the real thing, a demanding, take-no-prisoners kind of theatre writer. But in his record of productions at Mold can be traced the strands that have blended to make a “Hamlet” that grips from the start and never lets up.

“Terry Hands’ production has a dark and brutal magnificence. Superb expressionistic lighting by Hands himself.” That was “Troilus and Cressida” in February 2005. At “MacBeth” in May 2008: “Hell is murky and Terry Hands’ magnificent production is defined by the interplay of light and darkness.” Of “Maria Stuart” in May 2009: “Terry Hands’ unfeasibly exciting production…sets bare-knuckle rhetoric racing across the stage.”

As it happens Lee Haven-Jones was in that last production also, a dark-clad manipulator in another court ripe with conspiracy. Haven-Jones takes a break from a successful shift to director to return to the sizeable Anthony Hopkins stage. The first impression is the clarity, without apparent effort, of the speaking. The voice of this Hamlet appears to be hardly raised yet reaches every corner of the packed-out house.

This Hamlet is doubtfully mad, more a cool calculative intelligence who soon knows his purpose. As for his heartless repudiation of Ophelia it can be pre-seen in the twist of pronunciation he gives to the last word of “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Carol Royle’s Gertrude is here made a provocatively presented trophy wife for the King, with bared shoulder, dėcolletė and glittering with diamonds.

This is not a “concept” Hamlet, but that oft dismally executed concept in itself chimes little with the theatre’s tradition. It is a “Hamlet” from a director whose advice to a writer fresh to performance was simple. On the top of every page of the first draft write “it’s the audience.” True to this precept this “Hamlet” has a driving pace to it and a freshness from the opening. The battlements of Elsinore are bitter cold, reminder that the Oresund is gateway to a Baltic that freezes over at its other extremity.

The court beneath the murky, haunted battlement is a place of uniforms and ceremonial dress in whites and creams. This courtly opulence makes all the more contrast with the design. Mark Bailey’s set, black floor and stage rear, throws up dual reflections of the characters. This is a palace thin in privacy or comfort, a place of edge and unease. It is reminder that Shakespeare wrote in full knowledge of the spy state that Walsingham had constructed. The characters hardly rest or sit. The gripping last scene- Owain Gwynn’s regal Fortinbras is also fight captain- is played against type without furniture other than the flame from three braziers. The court earlier briefly gets to sit on gaudy chairs of gilt for the play-within-a-play. Tellingly Hamlet only truly sits when he is beside an open grave trading banter with Simon Holland Roberts’ exuberant gravedigger.

Theatr Clwyd Cymru is a company and the pleasures of being with a company are many. Colin Towns’ music is economic but deployed to effect; a touch of declamatory tone to mark the court, spectral tones to accompany Old Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are cunningly cast as a contrast in appearance. A guileless Guy Lewis and a twitchy Siŏn Pritchard, they are utterly out of their depth in their dealings with Simon Dutton’s commanding but death-haunted Claudius.

Caryl Morgan’s Ophelia has an opening physical ease in contact with Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’ Laertes. The spontaneity of expression makes her fall, a chilly reversion in part to infant song and dance, all the more searing. Roger Delves- Broughton’s Polonius may be the “good old man” in Gertrude’s words after his demise. In privacy with an acolyte he is a sharp-gestured political courtier not above doling out physical assault when thwarted.

The classics at Mold have always been characterised by a fierce intelligence in approach and a honed visual image. That is where the conflation of director and lighting director shows. The Laertes of this production had occasion on 31st January for a few well-crafted words of appreciation from the stage of the Sherman. “A big pair of boots to fill” was how he put it.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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