Hamlet, as we all know, is a play obsessed with observation. It’s a shame, though, that so few people turned up to the Swansea Theatre Grand on Friday to observe Terry Hands’s final production as Artistic Director of Clwyd Theatr Cymru. Was it properly advertised? Those who did turn up got to see a commendably quick and stylish production performed on a wonderful set. They did not, however, get to see a very good Ghost.
The lighting, costuming, and setting combined excellently. In his first scene, Hamlet stands on the periphery, dressed in his customary black, but this is rendered all the more striking by the luminosity of the sharp white clothing worn by the rest of the court. The polished black surface and bright lighting served to further point up the striking contrast. The black back wall reflected the white clothing, creating some impressive shimmering effects but Hamlet’s black was not reflected. In the second half of the production, the colours were reversed. Such visual choices are at once simple and complex: they aided the actors – helping to create a sense of Hamlet’s isolation; suggesting the gross decadence of Claudius’s court – and they didn’t get in the way by cluttering the stage. Scene changes were extremely fluid, which is an especially good thing in a play like Hamlet: as a result, the production lasted a little under three hours and never felt long. There were, however, a couple of misjudgments. The killing of Polonius involved the unnecessary use of an additional prop: slightly bizarrely, a weird screen structure was lowered on to the stage, apparently in order to represent Gertrude’s closet. I found this surprisingly clumsy, given the deftness shown in previous scenes. More irritating still was the revelation of the Ghost: at first he was represented merely by a shaft of light but when he came to talk he did so from a projection high at the back of the stage. The scene reminded me greatly of ITV kid’s TV classic Knightmare: great as Knightmare is, it’s surely not the look they were going for here.
Ultimately, the set can be determined a triumph and the acting, too, is largely successful, though not without blips. In the early scenes, Lee Haven-Jones milks Hamlet’s melancholia for all it’s worth. This is frustrating as the part requires greater tonal flexibility: listening to Hamlet’s earliest speeches becomes unwarrantedly tedious. Thankfully, he soon snaps out of it: the Ghost’s appearance injects some much needed anger into Haven-Jones’s performance. It’s like a switch is flicked and Hamlet is suddenly activated. Simon Dutton, as Claudius, is terrific: he conveys both the smarmy and the sinister and brings a comic swagger to his early scenes. He handles the prayer scene well too and again, there’s a light comic touch brought out in his couplet: ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below,/Words without thoughts never to heaven go’. Caryl Morgan’s Ophelia does good work too, not only when she sadly strews the stage with flowers in her final scene but also in her earlier interactions with her violent father (Roger Delves-Broughton) who slaps her in the face. In the end though, it is the set that is the real star, even if we could do with a better Ghost.