Event review: the Whitgift School’s production of Hamlet, Sunday 4th-Saturday 10th December 2016

By - Thursday 8th December, 2016

A student production which bardly goes where few school plays have gone before

Photo by @dfphotography, used with permission.

One has to admire the gumption and courage of a school which takes on one of the most famous plays in English theatrical history, one which is so well known and has had so many famous performances. Hamlet is also a very long play and it says much for the production of this Shakespearean classic by the Whitgift School in South Croydon that the audience’s interest was aroused from the first minute and maintained all the way to the end.

This was mainly due to superb performances by all the main actors, but was also enhanced by some innovative staging that brought the actors closer to the watching public. Instead of using what could have been the main stage for the performance, the orchestra was placed there and the actors performed in all but one scene in the wide hallway that separated the seating areas on either side. This kept the audience close to the action, and also allowed the actors to occasionally interact with members of the watching public.

The innovative use of space served to heighten the drama

The only exception to the use of this long but reasonably wide space was the second scene, in which King Claudius, Queen Gertrude and Hamlet appeared above our heads in what might be described as the circle. As the scene was set in the court, it somehow contrasted well with the first scene, which was set outside the battlements. It also helped enforce the image of the authority of the crown, even though the carefully crafted weasel words of Claudius would have made us aware (as if we didn’t know already) that he was the going to be the villain of the play.

The space seemed to encourage energetic performances that somehow heightened the drama. In spite of knowing the story, we were drawn into the tale of an anguished youth discovering a terrible truth and then fulfilling the destiny of revenge that seemed to be demanded of him. The production was definitely enhanced by the main older roles being taken by experienced professional actors, who not only played their own roles very well but must surely have inspired the young Whitgift actors.

The play’s betrayal of youth by an older generation seemed particularly relevant to our time

Their presence also helped to highlight the generational aspect of the play, particularly relevant in today’s political climate. It was the older actors’ criminal and deceitful actions and words that caused the suffering and deaths of the three main young characters, Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes, who seemed almost like the inevitable tragic victims of crimes committed by their older relatives. At a time when vital decisions are being taken about the future of our country, that the majority of the younger generation disagrees with and will suffer the consequences of, this felt particularly pertinent.

The despair and angst of these three young characters were brilliantly portrayed. Jude Willoughby played the part of Hamlet with a confidence and assurance that belied his years, and Harry Seager was a fine and impetuous Laertes. For me though, it was Fiona McNevin, who made the part of Ophelia her own, who stole the show. She was totally convincing as a young inexperienced girl in love, as an obedient daughter, as the confused victim of Hamlet’s cruelty, and lastly, most tragically as a young woman enveloped by a hopeless mad despair. In this performance of Hamlet, Ophelia’s tragedy was more moving and felt just as significant as that of her doomed, ill-fated boyfriend.

Ben Goldby as Horatio was also particularly impressive, and Charlie Barber and Daniel Horsley deserve a special mention as two very amusing gravediggers. It made me appreciate even more the incredible skill of the bard in getting the audience to laugh after the almost unbearably sad scene of Ophelia singing her crazy plaintive songs. As one who now finds himself amongst the senior generation, it was somehow very touching to see a younger generation discovering the wonder of Shakespeare for themselves, and making such a fine and daring interpretation of one of his finest plays.

Getting enough to eat isn’t something that these performers will ever have to worry about

I would like my last paragraph to praise one of the older actors, who as well as giving a wonderful performance as the platitudinous idiot Polonius, also helped by his performance to raise funds for a worthwhile charity that is clearly dear to his heart. Keith Bartlett has recently finished taking part in the Shakespeare Globe’s production of Hamlet that has over a period of two years performed the play in nearly every country of the world. It was while on this phenomenal tour, taking in 197 countries, that he came across the charity Mary’s Meals, which now helps more than a million children to receive a meal every school day.

The ability to have something to eat at lunchtime at school is something neither the actors nor the audience at the Whitgift School will ever need to worry about, yet millions of children in the developing world still go to school without the prospect of any nutrition to help them through the day. Needless to say, the support that Mary’s Meals provides not only improves the children’s health but also helps to improve their educational performance.

The Whitgift School has kindly offered to give 20% of their fundraising work this year to the charity, and I would urge anyone who goes along to see this excellent performance to also consider making a donation. It can be illuminating and at times cathartic to see a tragedy on the stage, but as Keith Bartlett shows, as well as acting a part or watching, we also have it in our power to help avert many ordinary everyday tragedies.

The Whitgift School’s production of Hamlet will be performed at 7:30pm tonight (8th December) with a final performance at 7:30pm on Saturday 10th December. Tickets cost £6.00 with concessions £3.00.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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