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by on 28 October 2019

What a Piece of Work Is Woman!


by William Shakespeare

Richmond Shakespeare Society at Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, until 2nd November

Review by Louis Mazzini

Though it is billed as a “radical Scandi-noir production”, Richmond Shakespeare Society’s latest version of Shakespeare’s most famous play is on surprisingly traditional lines other than the gender reversal of several characters including the eponymous prince – there was a time when that might have been regarded as radical but it is not so unusual these days as explained in a fascinating programme note by Dr John Buckingham.

Hamlet A

As the Princess Hamlet, Francesca Ellis brings to the role an edgy charisma and a near acrobatic athleticism while, in the opening scenes, her phobic reaction to Claudius, played with seedy power by Chris Mounsey, hints that something even darker than suspicions of murder might also lie behind Hamlet’s aversion to her uncle.

Hamlet B

While Ellis is immediately credible in the most famous male role in theatre, some of the other switches are less effective, in particular the charHAMLET FIVEacters of Hamlet’s friend Laertes and his doomed sister Ophelia. As Laerta, Nicola Doble is initially compelling but her performance becomes less plausible in the second half, while Hamlet’s feelings for Laerta’s brother simply do not ring true when so many of the lines – even subtly reworded – were plainly written with a sister in mind. For the same reason, Jamie Barker struggles to convince as Orpheus. On the other hand, Susan Reoch brings dignity and gravitas to Polonia, the siblings’ mother, without compromising the essence of Shakespeare’s Polonius and as Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, Emily O’Mahony, Jessica Warrior and Pete Messum make more believable friends for Hamlet than is sometimes the case.

HAMLET SIXGertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is played by Jane Marcus who has little to do but does it very well, especially in the confrontation with Hamlet which is compelling and touching though robbed of the ambiguity that comes when Hamlet is male.

As for the others in the cast, a key element of Hamlet’s plot to avenge his father’s death concerns a travelling theatre company here led by Simon Bartlett, appropriately histrionic as The Player King. The two other members of the company are played by John Gilbert and Cath Messum – both of whom appear to good effect in other roles. And there is also Francis Abbott, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, exciting and threatening despite a curious choice of costume.

Even with cuts, as have been sensitively made for this production, Hamlet is a long play and Susan Conte’s direction wisely keeps up the pace albeit sometimes at a cost to the characterisation as well as some of the comic elements. Marc Pearce’s lighting and sound design is excellent, and the special effects work well, while Joe Evans’ filmic music adds tension and atmosphere to the external scenes and bears comparison with the work of Ólafur Arnalds and other contemporary composers.

HAMLET FOURThe costumes, bar a jumpsuit or two, are well chosen and effective and by any standards, the set – painted by Francesca Stone and also designed by Marc Pearce – is spectacular, with a beautifully rendered multi-coloured marble floor and Carrara walls, broken up by arches and dominated by a red velvet arras between two superbly lit windows.

This is an effective retelling of Hamlet and Francesca Ellis’s performance should silence anyone who still believes that Shakespeare’s most compelling character cannot be portrayed by a woman.

Louis Mazzini
October 2019

Photography by Sally Tunbill

  1. Rodney Figaro permalink

    It’s refreshing to see a touch of adverse criticism creeping in. Reviews of amateur shows sometimes tend to be a little anodyne. With thanks, Rodney Figaro

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