Review: "Hamlet" at the Leeds Playhouse

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  • Adam Bruce, Contributing Critic - United Kingdom

After a brief quiet period in the aftermath of its acclaimed ‘A Christmas Carol’, Leeds Playhouse has once again opened up the doors to its pop-up theatre space to inspire audiences from across the city and beyond. This time, however, we’re not in the land of misers, but instead, we’re in a land of treachery, tragedy and betrayal: Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’.

While I’m sure most readers will know the story of ‘Hamlet’, it may be helpful to have a quick refresher as per this adaptation, which largely stays true to the play’s original narrative, albeit a vast temporal relocation. In a modern Denmark on the brink of war, Hamlet (Tessa Parr) battles with her traitorous uncle Claudius (Joe Alessi), dealing in a currency of beguilement and sharp intellect as she seeks to bring down those that have placed the besmirched shadow of doubt over her family.

As you can see above, in this contemporary rendering of the play, the mighty Tessa Parr takes on the title role, adding to the rich modern lineage of the traditionally male role being explored by female actors. This in turn adds new meanings that we can infer from the character’s dealings with the Bard’s timeless concepts, allowing for a rich landscape in which the role can be explored. On that note, this is one of Parr’s most striking and beautiful portrayals that I’ve seen her give during her time in the Leeds Playhouse Ensemble thus far. She commands the stage with an inimitable presence, taps into the rich rhythms and language of Shakespeare’s verse with flair and finesse, and tempers a dynamic performance that gracefully shifts gears in the fires of the performative crucible laid out before us.

Her performance is bolstered and enhanced by the versatile and ever-engaging Leeds Playhouse Ensemble, which continues to work well together to craft performances that ignite the spark of connection between spectator and performer. Their performances are dedicated, brim with energy, and powerfully grapple with the language of Shakespeare’s rich textual landscape to build the play-world under Amy Leach’s astute direction, which gives the performances plenty of room to breathe and flourish far beyond the lofty vaults of the Playhouse’s workshop-turned-theatre space, where the performative magic of this contemporary rendering soars.

Aiding the flight of this production is a beautiful Scandi noir-inspired aesthetic from the design team. Hayley Grindle’s set and costume designs evoke a minimalism that conveys the contemporary relocation whilst placing a sharper sense of focus on the characters, intensifying their emotional changes and dousing the proceedings with a somewhat ghostly, empty air that perfectly communicates the sombre tone pulsating beneath the rich performances. Her set design brings a sense of welcome intimacy and intensity by keeping the stage space small, and an almost inescapable sense of maddening claustrophobia – perhaps evocative of the impending and inevitable doom our characters are heading towards – haunts the action, and even amidst the spacious airiness of the Scandi design, we see that the truth of justice will always close in.

Joshua Carr also employs a cinematic lighting design, adding to the piece’s sense of modernity whilst building on the aforementioned intensity. When Carr’s lighting design is excellently coupled with Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s compositions and sound design, which eerily drones in and out with experimental, atmospheric soundbite shards and a dark sense of musicality, the atmosphere is supercharged. This helps the performances speedily, yet economically, race through the gears to give this production a fresh, poignant and gripping feel.

This new production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies is by far one of the best pieces of storytelling I’ve seen from the Playhouse yet. With knock-out performances from the whole cast and a fresh temporal relocation that makes ‘Hamlet’ more relevant than ever, you really don’t want to miss this spellbinding show.

‘Hamlet’ is at Leeds Playhouse until 30th March. For more information and tickets, please visit https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/hamlet/

Credits

Cast

Claudius: Joe Alessi

Ophelia: Simona Bitmate

Horatio: Crystal Condie

Rosencrantz: Darren Kuppan

Gertrude: Jo Mousley

Laertes: Dan Parr

Hamlet: Tessa Parr

Ghost/Gravedigger: Robert Pickavance

Polonius/Priest: Susan Twist

Creatives

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Amy Leach

Set & Designer: Hayley Grindle

Lighting Designer: Joshua Carr

Composer & Sound Designer: Alexandra Faye Braithwaite

Trainee Sound Designer: Charlotte Bickley

Fight Director: Kate Waters

Dramaturg: Jacqui Honess-Martin

Company Stage Manager: Richard Pattison

Stage Manager: Julie Issott

Deputy Stage Manager: Megan Kearney