Cosmic Arts’ modern dress rendition of Hamlet opened at the Keble O’Reilly on Wednesday, making good use of Keble’s impressive theatre to capture the audience’s interest straightaway upon entry. The set design was not overcomplicated but very visually compelling: sand near the front of the stage mirrors the projection of a beach on the far wall, and scaffolding hung with muslin drapery set a brooding tone without firmly placing the narrative anywhere in time or space; one couldn’t help but wonder where this production would take things as people filed in and chose where to sit. Tiered panels on either side of the stage made for an appealing symmetry and enabled various interesting compositions throughout the performance. Right off the bat, this was utilised to drape characters’ bodies across the steps, as the final scene was strikingly transposed to the opening of the play; this lent a very satisfying sense of circularity to a performance which was otherwise structurally ambiguous.
The use of technology to portray Hamlet’s ghost was good in theory, especially as the Keble O’Reilly has the appropriate resources, and this not only gave the ghost a disembodied voice but allowed the actors to stare into the audience as they confronted the spectre, and generally helped convey the ghost’s uncanny nature. Unfortunately, technical difficulties rendered the projection distracting, taking away from the impact of the ghost’s speech, and the use of strobe lights, which was initially very effective, soon turned excessive and had many audience members shielding their eyes.
The intelligibility of lines was at times sacrificed in favour of drama, making certain scenes such as Hamlet’s first soliloquy hard to follow, which in turn impacted the effectiveness of the narrative. Shouting, shrieking, and stomping onstage, whilst clearly not inappropriate for this play, did not add much to the performance, making the overall portrayal of emotion more confusing than convincing.
What this production did excel in was the use of non-verbal communication for comedic effect, from Hamlet’s uncomfortable silence after Claudius calls him “son”, to Osric’s perpetually perturbed expression as he records the characters’ interactions on his laptop, making for a range of amusing dynamics. Hand gestures, facial expressions, and glances exchanged behind other characters’ backs really helped bring the unspoken to life, presenting character interactions in a new light which did not feel forced.
Awkwardness between characters was used to great comedic effect throughout the performance, particularly evident in Luke Malone’s priceless portrayal of Polonius, and Cecily Brem’s appropriately mortified response as Ophelia, whose relationship to her family members was very convincing and lent itself well to the modern setting. However, although the comedy was well executed in itself, it did not mesh well with the tragic nature of the play. Rather than being offset or relieved by the use of comedy, the tension of the play seemed somewhat diminished by it. Intense confrontations between characters were at times dampened by the comedic effect, and Jack Parkin’s angry teen Hamlet somewhat undermined the sincerity of the role. All in all, Cosmic Arts delivered an ambitious production which featured convincing character dynamics and effectively engaged the audience on a comedic level, but fell short of fulfilling its tragic potential.