By Ian Burns
The courtyard at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør provides the perfect setting for performances of any Shakespeare play. The joy on the faces of the actors and audience just to be there was clear to see.
It surely must be a fantastic experience to perform in the open air in that historical space, and even the squawking of the occasional swooping seagull and the subtle chimes of the courtyard clock seemed perfectly timed to support the action.
All three productions – ‘The Comedy of Errors’, ‘Richard III’, and ‘Hamlet’ – had elements in common: great ensemble playing, musicality and the ability to indeed speak Shakespeare ‘trippingly on the tongue’. Every word uttered was crystal clear and delivered at a high tempo. All the actors on display here thought fast but spoke clearly, and every one of Shakespeare’s delicious words weaved their magic spell over us. That for me was the overriding pleasure of seeing these three plays.
Propellor Theatre, with a company of 14 male players at their disposal, gave us ‘Comedy of Errors’ and ‘Richard III’, both penned in the early days of Shakespeare’s career and performed in 1592. The first is a romp based on the mistaken identity of two sets of identical twins accidentally separated at birth. It was all great fun and with a cast that were brilliant and believable throughout. The star turn was Tony Bell, who as Pinch the Conjurer – portrayed in this production as a faith healer – reduced the audience to tears of laughter when he appeared totally naked through a cloud of smoke, having been blown up, with his hair standing on end, clutching his privates with both hands and with a lit roman candle lodged in his rear end! It was inspired and it was hilarious. Seeing him exit at speed we could still see him in the darkness some distance offstage being assisted by a helpful stage-manager who removed the aforementioned flaming object. I have not laughed as much as that at any theatre.
‘Richard III’ was presented on a bare stage in the strict black and white allowed by Edwardian costume. There’s more than a whiff of the abattoir and gangster about the design. Many people get massacred in this play in extremely nasty ways that includes the use of drills, handsaws, gardening tools, hooks, hammers, lethal injections, poison and pistols. It was very funny at times, but behind all the asides from our charming villain, played with ease by Richard Clothier, lurked a message for all times. Beware of megalomaniacs who are willing to kill to achieve their ambition.
The Globe Theatre’s ‘Hamlet’ had been touring for seven months before it found its way to Helsingør. A smaller troupe of just eight played all the characters and the changing of one to the other was done without distraction. Their collective entrance introduced how they intended to approach the production.
They were relaxed and talked to the audience as they placed costumes and props before the play began in earnest. “Do you come here every year to see Hamlet” asked John Bett as he took a rueful glance at the foreboding heavens. “Yes!” came a loud and enthusiastic reply from a large section of the audience, hoping in cricket terms that rain would not stop play. “Oh. You’ll probably know the words as well, if not better than we do then!” His list of characters included First Gravedigger, Priest, Polonius, Francisco and Player. A friendly demonstration then that they were only going to play the parts of the dramatis personae in this play called ‘Hamlet’.
Joshua McGuire’s Hamlet was a young and likeable teenager tackling the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The choice of sharing all his private thoughts directly with the audience diluted the chaos of his addled revenge-ridden but impotent being. However, “Prince of Light” was a comment I heard at the interval. Someone obviously missed Hamlet’s inner torment and angst. Heavy and persistent rain at the premiere meant that for safety’s sake they decided to stop performing just before the final fight scene.
It transpires that next year there might be even more action on the battlements, as Lars Romann Engel, the artistic director of HamletScenen, has recently revealed that he wants to present high-quality productions other than ‘Hamlet’ at Kronborg. We should applaud and support that endeavour whole-heartedly.
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