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Stage Dragon Review: Hamlet – Guildford Shakespeare Company

Published on: 9 Feb, 2022
Updated on: 9 Feb, 2022

‘Alas, poor Yorick!’: Freddie Fox as Hamlet recalls his childhood friend. Photo Matt Pereira

By Alice Fowler 

Something very special is happening at Guildford’s Holy Trinity church. Freddie Fox’s performance as Hamlet – much-vaunted on posters around the town – is nothing short of spectacular.  

Fox – boyish, pale-faced, tortured, switching between pain and comedy on a sixpence – brings Hamlet to life in a way it feels a privilege to watch. Hamlet, of course, is littered with lines so famous as to be hackneyed: “To be or not to be”, “Alas, poor Yorick!”

Only an actor as talented as Fox can make these familiar lines sing with truth: so we teeter with the harried Hamlet on the brink of life or death; or glimpse him as a lonely boy-prince in a stultifying household, turning to the jester for affection.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” the security guard Marcellus (Karen Ascoe) tells us early on in Guildford Shakespeare Company’s mesmerising production. Director Tom Littler and designer Neil Irish make full use of the lofty surrounds of Holy Trinity to explore the mouldering corruption of a regime that lives by bullying and surveillance, where ruthless rulers war and scheme.

Claudius (Noel White) with Hamlet. Photo Matt Pereira

While Fox is luminous, so too are Noel White as Claudius, his uncle, the newly elected King of Denmark; Karen Ascoe as his mother, the Queen; and Stefan Bednarczyk as Polonius, a royal adviser.

Daniel Burke as Laertes turns on Hamlet for killing his father Polonius. Photo Matt Pereira

Hamlet, in mourning for his father’s sudden death, wonders if his father’s brother Claudius – who, within a month, has married Hamlet’s mother – is to blame.

When his suspicions are confirmed via the old king’s ghost (voiced by Fox’s own father, Edward Fox), Hamlet’s mental state unravels. Fox masterfully portrays this mental disintegration, shifting between mischief and depression, tenderness and rage.

Raging and unravelling: Freddie Fox as Hamlet. Photo Matt Pereira

His descent into madness is reflected by that of Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, affectingly portrayed by Rosalind Ford. Ophelia, whom Hamlet loves, loses her mind after Hamlet mistakenly kills her father.

Fragile and affecting: Rosalind Ford as Ophelia Photo Matt Pereira

As events unfold, the malevolent Claudius and his new wife, Gertrude, are thrust into what truly is a nightmare second marriage. Ascoe’s performance as the Queen – cold, constrained and compromised, torn between love for her first and second husbands and her son – is subtle and acute.

Hamlet (Freddie Fox) forces his step-father Claudius (Noel White) to drink poison. Photo Matt Pereira

By the end, as she brushes tears from Hamlet’s cheek, we cannot doubt the love for her son that, for too long, she has suppressed.

Hamlet, like many of Shakespeare’s works, features a play within a play. Often, the actors line up chairs and look out from the stage, so we, the real-life audience, are seamlessly absorbed into the play.

Lighting designer Mark Dymock makes full use of the magnificent setting of Holy Trinity, picking out its high half-domed mosaic ceiling and chancel screen with cross.

There is music too: the cello played by Rosalind Ford as Ophelia, while the church organ is skilfully pounded by Stefan Bednarczyk.

With love between parents and their children a theme throughout the play – Hamlet and the old king, Ophelia and Polonius, Hamlet and his mother – Freddie Fox’s own acting provenance cannot be ignored. The son of acclaimed actors Edward Fox and Joanna David, brother of Emilia Fox (of Silent Witness fame), Fox may well have wrestled with his own dynastic demons. If so, he triumphantly shakes them off in this unmissable production.

While early performances were affected by Covid, the cast is now back to full strength and the run has been extended, to February 23. Book now for this superb, five-star production.

For tickets, see www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk

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