So many Hamlets. Last month saw Ian McKellen reprise a section of Hamlet in his one-man show; running on the West End is Andrew Scott's magnificent take on the Dane; Glyndebourne are also currently getting in on the act. This week sees two open up in London alone, the Tom Hiddleston, no-critics-allowed Hamlet, and this 90-minute Hamlet. This one is a family affair Hamlet, starring only three people: ex-politician Gyles Brandreth, his son Benet (playing the eponymous hero), and Benet's wife, actress Kosha Engler. Having seen the latter, I know which one I'd rather have a ticket to opening night for.
Adapted by Imogen Bond, this Hamlet merges characters and scenes and rattles through Shakespeare's great tragedy. For a 90-minute version of the longest of Shakespeare's plays it's not a terrible adaptation, but it absolutely does beg the question: why? The answer to that is the show's central conceit. This is a chance for Brandreth – originally a theatre-man, before his political endeavours – to strut his stuff alongside his son. Talk about vanity projects.
Directors Simon Evans and David Aula set the action in a well-furnished, cottage-esque kitchen. All the soliloquys, murders and madness happen around a lovely wooden dining table and in-front of a carefully filled Welsh dresser. Polonius is stabbed next to the fridge. The reason for this setting is never entirely revealed, although it probably has something to do with families and domesticity, or something. The staging is fairly dynamic and the tempo strong (it has to be to squeeze everything in). Evans and Aula carefully choreograph the set pieces so that the numerous changes in character (Brandreth senior plays all the men apart from Hamlet, Engler plays all the women, and some of the men) actually fairly easy to follow.
The problem mainly comes in the fact that Brandreth junior is a barrister and a rhetoric coach and not an actor. He speaks the verse well, but he doesn't feel it. It's similar for Brandreth senior too, he manages to differentiate between the plethora of old men, but it's still just Gyles Brandreth pretending to be Claudius, or Polonious or old Hamlet. Engler is much better – an actress in her own right – but even her satisfyingly sensual Rosencrantz and her broken Ophelia can't help what else is happening on stage.
The soliloquys are lost all too often through Benet talking only to one section of the audience – rather than trying to talk to all of us. There were many moments were I was just looking at his back. And though Bond's adaptation is fine, it is an exceptionally strange move to make Ophelia a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character with her brother Laertes, during her madness. Laertes only turns up right at the end of this Hamlet as Ophelia's alter-ego. Ophertes? Laerlia? Either way it further flattens the final fighting scenes which don't even involve rapiers but instead Hamlet fights Ophertes through the five finger fillet game. There's little risk involved - no violence, no threat: it all feels rather awkward. Much like this show as a whole.
Hamlet runs at the Park Theatre until 16 September.