Some actors wait a lifetime to play Hamlet, but Joshua McGuire, who graduated from RADA in 2010, isn’t hanging around. It is rare to see a Hamlet this young (Ben Wishaw being the obvious exception) and the effect is profound. This touring production of Hamlet becomes a play about growing up, about realising the world isn’t as simple as it seemed at school; ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt in your philosophy.’
It isn’t only Hamlet who seems softer and perhaps slightly simpler in Dominic Dromgoole’s production: Claudius is more grumpy headmaster than damned villain, Gertrude looks like a frumpy school teacher and Ophelia is sweet but rarely sexy. This approach, which feels like Hamlet is at school and not court, casts many scenes (those that remain in this ruthlessly cut version) in a fascinating new light, even if much of the darker complexity is lost.
Everything has been engineered to make Hamlet seem smaller, victimised and often dangerously out of his depth. Horatio (Ian Midlane) is a towering presence and when the two friends stand together, they look a lot like George and Lenny, from Steinbeck’s Mice and Men. When Horatio and Hamlet confer, they could be two lonely kids in a playground, plotting to overthrow the school bullies. Polonius, permanently clutching his notes and books, strikes one as a retired lecturer of philosophy, with too much time on his hands. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dragging around racquets in sly homage to Stoppard’s play, remind one of those fickle friends so often found, and lost, at school.
Jonathan Fensom’s set accentuates this interpretation. The stage is fairly bare and Hamlet spends a lot of time scampering around, like a kid let out at break time. A number of platforms are available for Hamlet to clamber onto and, when he scurries up the ladders, he looks like a lad retreating to his tree house. The costumes, too, play up this youthful bent. Joshua McGuire begins in a tight, inky blue cloak of woe, so compact that his small frame grows smaller still. When McGuire’s Hamlet adopts his antic disposition, a scarlet cloak wafts about his shoulders: he’s a kid playing dress up. And, as these adult events start to crowd in on young Hamlet and muddle his mind and body, he strips down to something resembling a babygrow. He is a boy asked to be a man and it is the impossibility of this demand, the huge favours asked of such a young lad, that lead Hamlet to his untimely death.
Joshua McGuire, with his cherubic hair and a smile that reaches to the rafters, radiates charm; one could see the younger spectators moving in to get a closer look. He pulses with naïve optimism and an innate willingness to please. McGuire’s face is stretched into a near-permanent smile, though there’s an increasing amount of fear and frustration behind those pearly whites. This is a much kinder Hamlet than one normally sees. The showdown with Ophelia is soft-edged, as a shy Hamlet tugs at his shirt and flirts falteringly. Jade Anouka is similarly endearing and her clean innocence makes Ophelia’s disintegration a truly sorry sight. As she points erratically, clearing a path of isolation around her – staggering and swinging and swaying like a drunk – one’s heart aches for her all too early adulthood.
But whilst this brave casting allows for a new and moving central interpretation, the rest of the characters suffer for it. Claudius (Simon Armstrong) lacks bite and it’s hard to see how this brash and relatively simple man ever grew the balls or brain to kill a king. And, with the greatest of respect, Amanda Hadingue’s slightly dowdy appearance casts their relationship in an odd light. All that dark and sexy energy is lost and Hamlet’s enemies seem slightly pallid.
Everything and everyone becomes so much simpler in this wide-eyed, fast paced interpretation. Hamlet’s youth might mean he faces a bigger battle - that he must leap higher to overcome life’s hurdles – but it also oversimplifies his enemies and his situation. One would need a heart of steel not to lament the cruel curtailing of such a young life, but one cannot help but also mourn the loss of a thicker, uglier and more challenging play.