This new production represents a brave but only partially successful rebranding of The Globe under the new leadership of Michelle Terry, here performing the lead role herself. The company of twelve are the same ensemble simultaneously presenting As You Like It, and the two productions were in (open) rehearsal together. While this approach brought with it tangible improvisatory rewards in the first case, here in Hamlet the drawbacks and limitations are rather more obvious.

HamletWe lacked a sense of a governing conceit or concept, despite the fact that locally there were many convincing scenes that work on their own terms. It is though we have moved to the opposite end of the spectrum from the Emma Rice regime.

Scenes of dynamic collective movement, such as the glimpsing of the Ghost, the play-within-a play, and the final duel, were effectively staged as they always are here, making full use of the huge expanses available. It was pleasant too that several of the stage effects originally intended for The Globe could be evoked (Old Hamlet in the cellarage, or the ceiling ‘fretted with golden fire.’) But rarely and for only short stretches was this production more than the sum of its various parts.

Of course it is easy for critics to lament the absence of aspects of a character when Hamlet is so protean a role that no actor could possibly give universal satisfaction. It is however revealing of the rehearsal practice behind this production that Terry is most at home in the playacting and clownish aspects of the role, indeed assuming full clownish whiteface for a goodly section of the action. She is indeed adept at playing with identities, but less sure ultimately as to what her Hamlet stands for, a decision that cannot be endlessly deferred. She has a neat line in dry irony, and the intimate scenes played out well: but larger-scale heroic projection is not her natural forte, or at least not on this huge stage.

HamletPerhaps it would all have worked rather better in the Wanamaker, where the intimacy of setting would have fitted what was essentially a small-scale production. There was considerable attention to textual detail, and some interesting fresh readings, which would have registered much more strongly in a more secluded space.

As Claudius and Gertrude, James Garnon and Helen Schlesinger are convincing both as a couple and individually, and both more sympathetic and vulnerable than they are usually played. Schlesinger and Terry worked effectively together in the confrontation in the Queen’s private chamber, and Garnon found more psychological depth to Claudius than is common.

Colin Hurley was a gruffly imposing Ghost and a memorable gravedigger and the Polonius of Richard Katz was more genial and less Machiavellian than usual these days, though not resistant to the tendency to broad buffoonery that can overtake actors playing old buffers at The Globe. Catrin Aaron was a loyal and plangent Horatio, making the most of a role that can often seem as underwritten as Hamlet is overwritten.

HamletWhile the gender-blind casting caused no difficulties in As You Like It, here it posed some problems. As Ophelia, Shubham Saraf found a certain graceful courtesy, but seemed otherwise ill-at –ease in the role. Bettrys Jones did better as Laertes, by doing less than usual in a role that can often seem ungratefully two-dimensional and rhetorical.

Pearce Quigley was a fairly subdued Rosencrantz, and the Deaf actor, Nadia Nadarajah was well integrated into the production alongside him as Guildenstern. Jack Laskey, so memorable in As You Like It as Rosalind, was underused in a few minor roles.

The wardrobe department was less eclectic in Hamlet than in As You Like It, offering a broadly period feel, though the joker/clown’s outfit inflicted on Terry rather overstayed its welcome. The musicians distinguished themselves in James Maloney’s moody and festive music, with the trumpet and three trombones sounding at times as though they had been studying with Miles Davis. It is to them we owed a sense of place, which otherwise seemed largely absent, in the same way that the Forest of Arden was missing in action earlier in the day.

You end this version of Hamlet with mixed feelings.

This is a perfectly decent production which would act as a plausible introduction for someone new to the play. By returning to the core strengths of The Globe in the actors and creative resources around them, the new regime has made a necessary and reassuring start. But this kind of back-to-basics approach would have been better resumed in rather less familiar territory than this, the most well-known of Shakespeare’s creations, which really cries out for fresh and startling directorial intervention, if it is to register alongside the memories we already have of many a fine past production, both here and elsewhere.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…