Opening night of RADA’s Hamlet @ London’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre

By September 8, 2017

Theatre & Dance. London.

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Photography credited to Johan Persson

RADA’s Hamlet has caused quite a stir in recent weeks. If the announcement of Kenneth Branagh directing the production was not enough, the lead role was placed in the hands of Tom Hiddleston. Their famous faces and bodies of work most definitely drew the crowds in, but it was down to the inclusion of recent graduates and past students to show the talent and progression of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  

The ticket buying process was simple: put your name in the hat and wait for your name to be called. The ballot system was a thoughtful way of encouraging young people to attend the play with cheaper tickets for those under 25, and a fair process to preserve the goal of raising money for the school and the RADA Attenborough Campaign.  

I was lucky enough to be one of 160 people surrounding the stage area in the school’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre on opening night. I use the term “stage area” because to say that they used a stage would be wrong. Instead, where my feet ended on the front row, their performance space began. Being a part of the action is one thing but it really felt like the audience was part of every scene, with the first beginning with Hamlet’s sorrowful rendition of “And will he not come again?” on a piano not 3 feet away. 

The use of space, costumes and scenery were outstanding and had been carefully considered for the small theatre. All four corners of the room were used as entrances and exits, making the audience exposed. This worked extremely well in Ophelia’s funeral scene where torches were the only source of light and Hamlet and Horatio hid in the shadow of the audience. Although modern attire was worn, the play was true to its roots and didn’t overly experiment with contemporary features. This is often the downfall of interpretative Shakespearean productions but each prop and item of clothing had been chosen to highlight the acting, rather than the actors’ surroundings. 

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The cast had obviously been chosen with care, all of which exceeding any expectations I had. Of the ten cast members, four were recent graduates of RADA. Kathryn Wilder as Ophelia was a firm favourite with the audience and perfectly captured the young woman’s rapid decline into madness; she was the talking point of many conversations I overheard in the foyer. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, played by Irfan Shamji, brilliantly conveyed the ever-changing emotions of the brave student and grieving son and brother. I managed to catch him after the show and he was eager to hear my thoughts on the play. Eleanor de Rohan (Guildenstern) and Ayesha Antoine (Rosencrantz) were a fiery duo, effortlessly swapping their lively, girlish routine for dark protectors of the King. In one exchange with Hiddleston, they managed to completely lift the atmosphere in the theatre, dancing and joking with a jovial Hamlet. It was a pleasure to watch the talented graduates taking on their first major roles with such natural flair and love of the theatre.

Appearing alongside the graduates were past RADA students and creative individuals including: the very talented My Mad Fat Diary‘s Lolita Chakrabarti; writer, director, comedian and actor Sean Foley; Casualty‘s Ansu Kabia; Happy-Go-Lucky‘s Caroline Martin; and the incredibly talented Nicholas Farrell as King Claudius.

Then there was Hamlet. The dark, complex entity of the grieving Prince of Denmark is an ever-changing force, formed in words by Shakespeare, analysed for years by scholars and students, and truly understood by no one person. Just as his madness is a confusing state for him, Hamlet’s identity and reasoning is not easily grasped by an audience and it takes a worthy actor to take on such an intense character. Tom Hiddleston is well rehearsed in quiet fury from his time as Asgardian Prince, Loki in Thor and The Avengers, as well as using the quick witted Jonathan Pine in The Night Manager to show his compatibility for action. Combining the traits to create an unstable, grief stricken and morally ambiguous Hamlet was always going to be difficult but Hiddleston threw himself into the darkest moments of the play with ease.

Hiddleston was charming, calculating, murderous and self-involved, at times all within the space of one scene. His soliloquy possessed an intensity and expression needed for such a pinnacle moment but when the script demanded a light hearted young man, Hiddleston came to life. He demanded the attention of the audience as he danced with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and along with his witty jibes and comical deceit of his own madness, the audience hung on his every word.

RADA is a starting point for many and, together with Kenneth Branagh, they have formed an incredible partnership in aid of well-deserved funding.

This was a powerful production and an intimate, captivating opening night.