Tuesday, 9 August 2022

REVIEW: Hamlet at Ashton Hall, Saint Stephens at the Edinburgh Fringe

One of the most talked about shows leading up to the 75th Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year has undoubtedly been Peter Schaufuss’s concept ballet of Hamlet, starring the formidable Sir Ian McKellen. Directed and choreographed by Schaufuss, this 75-minute production is mostly dance-driven showcasing his company Edinburgh Festival Ballet except for selected monologues, McKellen as the titular character, recites. All in all, it is a very traditional retelling of one of Shakespeares' great tragedies with added novelties.

Two of the biggest questions surrounding the production have been how McKellen, who first took on Hamlet in 1971, will represent the young prince at 83 years of age and how he will interact with the dancers on stage. 

Schaufuss's vision interoperates Hamlet as essentially two characters intertwined. Dancer, Johan Christensen, represents a young Hamlet in the 'real world’ while McKellen can be seen as Hamlet’s inner voice or the heaviness that motivates his dark and moody outlook, although, this is never properly explained. It’s an interesting take on the famously broody Dane as the robust language that has no option but to oose out of McKellen offers his dancer counterpart a rich tapestry of language and voice to interpret through his movement. Unfortunately, however, much of the choreography and execution of Christensen’s dancing does not support the density of the text. It rests descriptive and is unable to uncover the texture and expressiveness it could achieve. The rest of the choreography in the show sadly follows this lead and remains a superficial exploration of the text through movement.

The choice to have McKellen’s Hamlet onstage and present with the dancers as opposed to having him in the wings or at a distance is another really interesting choice. It allows a physical representation of an aged Hamlet to be experienced by the audience but it is yet another idea that ceases to explore its full potential. Overall, the movement, spirits like Hamlet's presence and text remains generally disjointed. This is also not helped by the constant feeling of gloom which flattens the work. Even a clumsy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were not able to lighten it with some half-hearted bouncing around.

Moments that do offer some dynamic shift include a wrestling match that shoots some violence into the heavy plot towards the end and Ophelia's solo. As she falls into madness, dancer Katie Rose finds a hunting quality and embodiment of the tragic character. 

The set consists of little more than a bare stage with white chains hanging from the ceiling to the floor as a backdrop. Small moments of movement ripple through the metal and light is projected onto it to create an uneasy atmosphere at times but sadly this too is underutilised. For example, right at the beginning, a ripple signifying the ghost of Hamlet's father is nothing more than a tease never to be repeated. As for the rest of the production values, Ethan Lewis Maltby’s sound design rests relatively monotonous and I can’t quite work out what I want to say about the period costume of the dancers coupled with Hamlet’s statement look of blue bennies, harliquinesque silk shirts and orange jean's. 

Ultimately this is a production with an array of conceptual choices that do not quite come together but it is always a thrill to be in a theatre with a powerhouse performer such as McKellen. It’s worth seeing for this reason alone regardless of the show's more baffling elements.

Review by Stephanie Osztreicher

Rating: ★★

Seat: NA | Price of Ticket: £32.58

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