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'Hamlet’s actors are kings of infinite space' | reviews, news & interviews

'Hamlet’s actors are kings of infinite space'

'Hamlet’s actors are kings of infinite space'

As her touring Hamlet reaches London, director Kelly Hunter reflects on packing Elsinore into a suitcase

Mark Arends as Hamlet: 'he made me hear phrases I’d never heard before,' says Kelly Hunter

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, Were it not that I have bad dreams…” 2016, with all its protectionist voting, has been the year I’ve taken my production of Hamlet – with just six actors, a sofa and a drum-kit – around Europe.

Having visited everything from a thunderstruck Kronborg Castle in Elsinore to an ancient Spanish bullring beset with fireworks, we will land at the Trafalgar Studios at the beginning of December with the roar and encouragement of our continental neighbours ringing in our ears.

I began writing this adaptation of Hamlet three years ago. At its core is an exploration of Hamlet’s divided self and the transference of grief that unfolds within his family; a fusion of Ibsen and Shakespeare. I wanted the audience to feel as though they were palpably in the room with Hamlet’s mind; as close as possible to his experience of grief and madness, which would at the same time feel like a privilege. A kind of ancient mystery. At the beginning of our 90-minute show Hamlet is physically possessed by his father’s ghost in an almost epileptic haunting, setting the tone for the raw and inescapable journey the six characters then embark upon. 

We had an auspicious world premiere in Gdansk in 2015 at the recently opened and quite magnificent Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre. Part theatre, part spaceship, the stage, auditorium and roof can seemingly do almost anything at the press of a button. We brought our fake blood and blunted kitchen knives in our backpacks from Luton Airport; the cast brought their own clothes. We performed to 600 people, who cheered and stamped and presented us with sunflowers, and then we stayed up till dawn talking with Polish students and actors. They were fascinated by our exploration of a family who stand by and do nothing to help as Hamlet and Ophelia descend into madness; this Polish audience saw the family’s inability to take charge as a metaphor for en masse political inertia.

We returned to Europe in spring 2016, flying this time to Craiova in Romania where ancient trees grow alongside Burger Kings. Our show was rubbing shoulders with Yukio Ninagawa’s Richard II and Thomas Ostermier’s Richard III. It was a festival I was inordinately proud to be part of. We played the studio space of the Marin Sorescu National Theatre – the perfectly sized “nutshell” space for our production. The performance had sold out and 100 extra people arrived without tickets. They all squeezed in, sitting on one another’s laps and on the floor of the stage almost in the actors’ laps. The mood was tangible and once more we stayed up all night with new friends talking of grief, ghosts and Europe east and west. 

The week before the Brexit vote we were in Spain performing at the Corral de Comedias de Alcalá de Henares, one of the oldest preserved theatres in Europe. Alcala is the birthplace of Cervantes, a town guarded by giant storks, sitting aloft their nests built into the steeples and eaves of the ancient buildings, their feathers floating down onto your food and into your hair like strange fluffy rain. I found them ominous. Others thought them pretty. The Spanish concentrated hard on the play and I began to get a feel for the true inner rhythm of the production. We now had a new Hamlet, the brilliant Mark Arends who made me hear phrases I’d never heard before even though I’d been listening to them for years. The following week in Germany at the replica Globe in Neuss – situated in the middle of a racecourse – the audience laughed heartily at Hamlet’s wit. (Pictured below: Kelly Hunter.)

At Kronborg Castle in Elsinore the show began and the heavens opened. We stopped for a while for the storm to pass and then started again. Church bells rang. Crows cried. We had a Danish choir join us to sing as the show descended into the graveyard scene. My inner Viking was very much alive.

In Spain last month we performed in the Basque country and then on the Mediterranean coast. After the performances, everyone wanted to talk to me about madness in their own families. And also about Brexit: a madness of a huge extended family. Teatro Circo was once a circus and bull ring. The blood of bulls had been spilt there. As Ophelia went mad, Murcia enjoyed an intense battery of Saturday night fireworks. It felt like the theatre was exploding. The actors caught the intensity, another experience to harness for our run at Trafalgar studios. Our tiniest space on tour so far. No matter though: space is not to be measured by borders, nor feet and inches. Much of 2016 has been like a bad dream but Hamlet’s actors are kings of infinite space.



Alan Mahon, Tobacco Factory, Bristol. Hamlet as wayward teen spirit

Andrius Mamontovas, Globe to Globe. Lithuanian take on the Danish play puts on a frantic disposition

Benedict Cumberbatch, Barbican. Visuals threaten to swamp Shakespeare – and, yes, Sherlock

David Tennant, RSC/BBC. Star looks for life in an infinite space beyond the Tardis

Lars Eidinger, Schaubühne Berlin. Acrobatic Hamlet, outshone by the earth and the rain

Maxine Peake, Royal Exchange, Manchester. An underwhelming production, but Peake is gripping as the young Prince

Michael Sheen, Young Vic. Sheen is riveting as the crazed Danish Prince in Ian Rickson's terrifying psychiatric-hospital staging

Rory Kinnear, National Theatre. Kinnear isn’t a romantic Prince, but an unsettled, battling one in Nicholas Hytner's staging which is modern, militaristic and unfussy


Please come to Peru! x

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