Saturday 6 August 2022

Hamlet - Review

St Stephens, Edinburgh


Written by William Shakespeare
Performance conceived by Peter Schaufuss and Ian McKellen
Directed and choreographed by Peter Schaufuss

Johan Christensen and Ian McKellen

If a picture can speak a thousand words, then Peter Schaufuss’ balletic take on Hamlet is the dance equivalent. Boldy stripping out 95% of Shakespeare’s prose and replacing it with ballet, Schaufuss offers up a fresh take on the essence of the Hamlet story that is both captivating and at times surprisingly moving. Where Shakespeare used the beauty of language to describe tableaux for the audience to imagine – think for example of Hamlet’s act one description of Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding celebrations – Schaufuss choreographs that wedding as his opening scene. It is an effective prologue but as with all ballet, it helps to have a good understanding or at least to have read a synopsis of the underlying story.

A typically staged Hamlet will take between 3 and 4 hours to perform. Schaufuss’ interpretation lasts a mere 75 minutes with ruthless excisions. No character speaks other than Hamlet (apart from Claudius’ guilt-ridden demand for “light” after the Players’ performance) and even then, Hamlet’s words are edited to extracts of only the most profound, recognisable soliloquies or conversations. For the most part, the editing works – and it makes a pleasant change to have no gauche contemporary political spin is applied to the story. This Hamlet is all about revenge with the ballet's music, a charming composition from Ethan Lewis Maltby, complementing the story perfectly.

The title role is dual-cast, with Johan Christensen dancing  as Ian McKellen voices those snippets of the text that have survived Schaufuss’ scalpel. When he is not speaking, McKellen's presence suggests an almost spiritual realisation of Hamlet’s soul or conscience as he moves and interacts. This is an intriguing combination of performances that merge almost seamlessly. McKellen’s Shakespearean speech of course is sublime and when he speaks of the “undiscovered country” there is a moving melancholy underscored by his 83 years. The dance is clever and suggestive, effectively delivering the narrative's basics. Katie Rose as Ophelia is a standout performer with her mime and movement delivering a disturbing insight into Ophelia's struggles and descent into madness. The endgame, here a wrestling match rather than the traditional swordplay, is thrilling. 

The production however is flawed. For the Player's performance, Schaufuss seats Claudius and Gertrude amongst the audience to watch. An upstage location would have served the show better, allowing the audience to not only watch the Players’ dumbshow, but also to observe Claudius’ reaction to the unfolding drama. Equally, the cutting of the gravediggers’ scene not only robs the story of a delightful interlude of comic relief, it also leaves Hamlet delivering the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech with no dramatic context whatsoever to explain why he his holding the court jester's skull.

While it will no doubt peeve the purists, this Hamlet remains one of the finest re-inventions of the classic yarn of recent years. For those who love the story, ballet, or who simply wish to see up close one of the greatest actors of our time it is a must-see production.

Runs until 28th August
Photo credit: Devin de Vil

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