Much of my summer was spent watching outdoor Shakespeare and it often seemed improbable that first-rate productions could, as Claudius says, ‘come not single spies / But in battalions’.
However strange it seems to begin watching Hamlet under natural light in a park, and be asked to imagine that we are on freezing castle ramparts with the clock just struck twelve, it should be remembered that original audiences would have also watched the play in daylight.
The newly-opened Brighton Open Air Theatre is one of the closest things I’ve ever seen to Shakespeare’s ‘wooden O’ so this performance was always going to have a true Elizabethan flavour.
Folksy Theatre injects a brooding quality into the piece from the off and, as the title character, Tom Hardwicke proves so skilful and well cast that he has hardly addressed us and we already know that this is a noble mind in danger of being o’erthrown. If you have empathetic feelings for the prince from the get-go then any competent set of actors around him will immerse you in the action.
The support here for Hardwicke is much more than competent with Lee Cameron proving superb as both Ophelia and Gertrude. Usually, this ruse by touring companies achieves little more than confusing anybody who is unfamiliar with the plot and suggesting to regular theatre regulars that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex. But in this case, the actress inhabits both roles credibly. A mad scene that includes a preamble on guitar is gruelling (in the right sense) with Cameron seemingly bearing flowers that she has indeed picked from the surrounding parkland. The actress also realises that – probably for the only time among an assortment of venues on a nationwide tour this summer – she is in a natural amphitheatre that allows her to lighten voice projection and at times be almost confessional.
Director Philippa Tomlin produces a stroke of genius by suggesting that Ophelia’s final exit (she is of course by now a corpse) proves invisible to the older generation while Hamlet and Laertes are imagining her ascending to heaven. It’s one small touch in a production that abounds with wit, stagecraft and first-rate verse speaking. Other flourishes are less cerebral and there is playful mischief as we are left at the interval with Hamlet’s dagger poised over Claudius at his prayers.
With a small cast, the familiar device of performing The Mousetrap as a puppet show is hardly a surprise but I have rarely seen it executed so adroitly and the Punch and Judy format proves appropriate at a venue only a mile from Brighton seafront. Surprisingly, Ewen McDermott barely raises a titter as Polonius, squandering what should be the biggest laughs in the play and yet he proves genuinely comic as a gravedigger.
Not a single sound effect is produced off-stage, a detail that makes this thoroughly authentic production all the more impressive and absorbing. There is no scenery, and props are limited to a bench, a tree made of taffeta and a few boxes. And yet the claustrophobic court atmosphere is somehow conjured up and we are in no doubt that this is a febrile environment of plotting and eavesdropping.
The minor characters are always rounded with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern given slightly Beckettian music hall touches, a detail that convinces us of their true loyalties earlier than usual.
All of the cast move around the park to good effect but Hardwicke seems in deep debate not just with himself but the audience and even the park’s wildlife in ‘To be, or not to be?’ which he paces wonderfully within a clear arc of narrative and intellectual enquiry. ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave’ is similarly intimate, intelligently modulated and free of the declamatory style you might expect in the open air.