Hamlet at Rose Theatre Bankside

A fast-paced Hamlet which still manages to surprise, despite the play's familiarity.

Despite much scholarly research, there remain many theories about Shakespeare's body of work. One is these theories focuses on the length of his plays; some feel that the lengthier ones could not have been performed in their entirety, or that they must be much longer than originally intended by Shakespeare. Whatever the truth, they are undeniably long, and Hamlet is the longest of them all. It takes anywhere between three and four hours to perform; a length of time that could put many off.

Yet the Rose's production lasts only an hour and a half. And the cast is limited to four; again something of an achievement as there are at least twenty characters in Hamlet. Instead of limiting the drama of one of Shakespeare's greatest works, this only serves to heighten it. The production is extremely fast-paced and slick – the character changes are barely noticeable (aside from Ophelia, who is inevitably portrayed as much older than she was by the actor who also plays Gertrude). Only when the production seeks to make something of the non-appearance of a character does it become clear that you are watching a limited cast perform a multi-character play – the appearance of Rosencrantz, and non-appearance of Guildenstern, is particularly well executed.

These light-hearted moments are scattered throughout the production; the director, Martin Parr, manages to balance comedy and drama extremely well. The set is largely bare, heightening the impact of the few props that are used; Ophelia's trailing red scarf is particularly powerful in the gloom of the space. Hamlet's father's ghost is evocatively portrayed through radio static and flickering lights. Praise should be given to the four characters, not only for their skill in seamlessly playing multiple roles, but also the solemnity that they bring to their roles. A sense of drama and tragedy hangs heavy in the air.

The star of the show, however, is the Rose itself. The performance space – essentially a black box –suits the play's deliberately stark aesthetic. The intimacy of the space highlights Hamlet's knowing glances to the audience, and his repeated references to theatre and performance. Yet, when you least expect it, the huge void that surrounds the Rose's archaeological excavations is revealed. Suddenly the action is taking place in a cavernous space, a space heightened by the large pool of water which serves to protect the remains of the original theatre. At once, the audience is reminded of the history of this site, and the theatre's campaign to protect, preserve and enhance its heritage.

It almost goes without saying; attempting to do something new with Hamlet – one of the world's most performed plays – is a challenge. Yet the Rose's production achieves this. By modifying its length, and keeping its cast tight and staging stark, the play's essential themes are magnified. Equally, by performing in the Rose, surrounded by its incredible history and unique space, the play is set within context. Go to see Hamlet as you've never seen it before.

More about Hamlet at The Rose Playhouse

• Tuesday 5 February 2013 to Sunday 3 March 2013 at The Rose Playhouse

See listing for Hamlet in our What's on guide...

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