‘Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act, Threatens his bloody stage’

Come the planned opening night, the thoughts of the cast and company of Hamlet may well have turned to these lines from Macbeth, Bournemouth Shakespeare Players’ companion offering next week. All the rehearsal and preparation, undertaken recently amid glorious weather, were thwarted as the heavens opened, accompanied by thunder and lightning, necessitating last-minute cancellation. Happily for all, on the following evening, rain held off until ten minutes after the performance concluded to richly-deserved applause.

Simply staged – effectively so – with black dominating set and costumes alike and a grassy forestage creating a thrust configuration, director Paul Nelson’s intimate and intense production of Mark Norfolk’s adaptation is absorbing throughout. Numerous fine performances collectively give the impression that the director has, unobtrusively and with a lightly assured touch, freed the characterisations from within his cast rather than imposed them, which is always richly satisfying.

Varied pace, changing moods and an effective fusion of the physical and the verbal make this Hamlet thoughtful and entertaining throughout. The early transition from Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost to the domestic intimacy, all sibling playfulness and guarded affection, between Ophelia and Laertes, to which is added Polonius’s well-intentioned but tediously garrulous parental exhortations, exemplifies these qualities: within these two scenes, much of what is to follow is skilfully anticipated.

Converting Horatius to Horatia, a gleefully conspiratorial Bethany Harris, and merging Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into a single female, generously underplayed by Wanda Sorge-Daniel, has an interesting effect on the play’s internal psychology: here, Hamlet finds friendship in different measure with three young women, not just Ophelia, but these friendships serve to illustrate the extent to which events involving his father, mother and uncle have overwhelmed his ability to shape even love into a sustainable male-female relationship.

In the title role, Patrick Marsden stops short of the neurotic, although his wilfully restless hands reveal as much of his inner torment as do his words. Such a performance could easily veer into self-indulgence and cliché, but the actor’s control and judgement prevent this, giving us a tragic hero who seizes our hands and leads us along his doomed path. His outwardly mocking but ultimately despairing, ‘Words! Words!’ to Polonius is played so that we are all too aware that words, replacing action, are the material of the web of his own making within which Hamlet ensnares himself.

Matching this performance is that of Holly Allen, whose Ophelia avoids the stereotypically fey and limp, giving us a young lady of real character but one tragically caught up in events she can neither control nor fight free of. She holds the stage, whether still and silent or understatedly distraught, conveying to the audience her inner as much as her outer life. These two actors are a delight in these roles, their ends inspiring a genuine sense of loss.

Janine Obagi and Simon Meredith, as Gertrude and Claudius, present a couple inhabiting a materialistic world far removed from that occupied, to varying degrees and in varying ways, by the younger characters. This Claudius employs words as his accomplices – a smoothly successful manager, albeit one troubled by a conscience he cannot totally repress, dull of imagination. Gertrude seems, as elsewhere true in Shakespeare, detached from a child for whom she purports to care – but with whom she lacks the natural means of realising a genuinely maternal bond.

Hamlet runs, troubled heavens permitting, until 22 July at 7.30 each evening. The informative programme will help even the novice to follow a story here well-told. If you possibly can, go and see it. It is excellent.