Review: Hong Kong enjoys a stripped-down Hamlet Globe to Globe

Funny, moving, but somewhat rushed, Shakespeare's classic drama loses some of the beauty of its language in this touring show celebrating the 450th anniversary of the playwright’s birth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 11:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 11:58am

London’s Globe Theatre is back with Hamlet Globe to Globe – a production created to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth by performing his most famous play in every country in the world. Hong Kong  is its latest stop on the two-year tour, with the company arriving after dates in Myanmar, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea.  

In response to the demands of such a huge tour and such diversity of venues, director Dominic Dromgoole has stripped production values to the barest of bare bones. Costumes are simple modern clothes, the set consists of a curtain  plus a few chests and planks which can be assembled in different ways to represent anything from a throne to a grave.

Except for the actor who plays Hamlet, the cast of less than a dozen switches continually between multiple roles.

The text has been cut back to produce a taut, energetic version of the play  that focuses on plot and action rather than poetry or philosophy. On this level it succeeds well – the characters (minor roles as well as major) are vividly drawn, the story clear and the pace dynamic.

The comic passages are funny (Hamlet abounds in great one-liners as well as soliloquies) and the most human moments of the drama (Ophelia’s madness and death, her brother’s grief), are moving.

For such a production, the troupe of travelling players who visit Elsinore are an obvious key theme – the performance begins with the company performing a rousing shanty about roving the seas – and the play within a play is one of the most effective sequences.

This concept makes perfect sense for a project aimed at such a wide range of audiences and offers lively, entertaining theatre. On the downside, it does less than justice to the play’s more profound aspects and the first half especially feels rushed.

The strengths and weaknesses of the production are  epitomised by Ladi Emeruwa’s performance in the title role. A young actor of great promise, he excels in the dialogue scenes, notably with  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (“Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” is particularly fine), brings out the comedy and has a fight scene with Laertes which is worthy of an action movie.

However – ay, there’s the rub – he takes the soliloquies so fast and with such little emphasis that he fails to convey either the beauty of the language or the power of the ideas. You don’t have to put on a coloratura voice for “To be or not to be…” but you do need to bring home its meaning to the audience.

In other roles, Hong Kong’s Jennifer Leong makes a triumphant return to her home town as a heart-rending Ophelia. John Dougall is a wonderful Polonius, as touching as he is funny and a pawky Scottish gravedigger. Keith Bartlett’s brisk, big businessman Claudius is neatly contrasted with his poignant account of the Hecuba speech as the First Player.

Above all this is an ensemble production and all the actors deserve praise for their  versatility, energy and commitment.

Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Rd, Wan Chai

Reviewed: September 4