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Hamlet, The Outsider at Southwark Playhouse

Mary Couzens of EXTRA! EXTRA!

One of the more striking things about this seventy minute version of Shakespeare's Hamlet is that the entire time the audience is watching the play, they are doing so in the same lighting as the actors.

Hamlet (Justin Avoth) and Ophelia (Emma Fildes) [courtesy New Fortune Theatre]

Instead of the lights going down, with the audience in the dark, we are on more or less an even keel with the actors and each other. In itself, this notion may be far from revolutionary, perhaps, but the concept does much to shed light upon the words, and meaning of the Bard's text. And seventy minutes (no interval) seems like just enough time to highlight the aspects of Shakespeare's Hamlet dealing with his reaction to his father's death, as well as his revulsion at this mother's hasty re-marriage to her late husband's brother, and the events leading up to inevitably dire consequences.

John Russell Brown directs Hamlet The Outsider with an immediacy that makes the lines ring true, though individual nuances seem to be left to the actor's interpretation of their own character. This may be one way to note that the directing has been most effective, as the lines seem to spring not only from the actors' lips, but from their emotions as well. Justin Avoth's Hamlet could almost be seen as cinematic, were it not for his all-encompassing facial expressions, which seem tailored to reach those seated in the back rows of a large theatre. However, this grandness of expression is tempered with neat underplaying in some of Hamlet's pivotal moments, which paradoxically makes the actor's judgement, and, that of his director, seem sound in the context of his approach to his role. Emma Fildes stands out, as well, as Hamlet's lady love Ophelia, though her scenes of madness could do with a trim, as the ethereal quality of her character, is by nature, elusive. Karen Archer offers a strong, emotional performance as Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, though the Oedipal nature of her relationship with her son seems somewhat encapsulated.

Hamlet (Justin Avoth) and his mother, Gertrude (Karen Archer) [courtesy New Fortune Theatre]

Jack Klaff makes a credible Claudius, cleverly adding a layer to his performance, which hints that he may be somewhat ineffectual as the bearer of his late brother's mantle. And Matthew Field lends able support in his dual roles of Ophelia's father Polonius, and the oft-quoted gravedigger. Though I must confess that I did miss Polonius' famous speech to his son, Laertes about, amongst, other things, the follies of borrowing and lending. Edward Clarke, who stars in Open Shakespeare's companion piece, Malvolio and His Masters, capably tackles the role of Ophelia's brother, Laertes. Last, but certainly not least, Al Weaver infuses his Horatio with intelligent sensitivity. Those who are up on their Shakespeare may remember him as the young actor who, in his theatrical debut, shared the leading role (3 performances a week) in Trevor Nunn's much lauded production of Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre in 2003.

Hamlet the Outsider is a generally well-presented production, though at times, rather haphazard sound design which seemed to take its cues more from Seventies television than anything relating to Shakespeare, threatened to overlap the actors' lines. If the tone of the production was that of soap opera, such a connection might be justified, but the high calibre of the acting warrants more thought. Shakespearean scholars and those who relish each and every word of Shakespeare's plays may find this pared down version of one of his greatest somewhat limited. However, as New Fortune Theatre have made it their business to focus on specific aspects of Hamlet's story, employing dialogue relating to it, I'd say their ends have justified their means. For theatregoers who prefer to get to the meat of the matter in little more than an hour will find all they need to digest of one of the world's finest literary texts not only alive in their performance, but also, well done.
• In rep until 10 June

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