The National Theater’s small children’s hamlet is lively and intelligent


Hamlet

National Theatre, London

“Oh my God, is there a ghost?” asks a small spectator anxiously as Hamlet wanders sadly through a veil of mist. This is the kind of question that has occupied researchers for decades. Here, however, there is no doubt that a spindly apparition, initially resembling a collision between a mast and a net curtain, duly makes its entrance.

His appearance gets laughs, but as he hovers across the stage, blasting his creepy controls, the laughter dies. And that sets the tone for this slick, nippy mise-en-scène, which weaves through Shakespeare’s tragedy in just 65 minutes, achieving sharper, more chilling storytelling than many full four-hour versions.

The latest of Shakespeare’s children’s plays from the National Theatre, this Hamlet takes on the daunting task of repackaging murder, madness, and existential daydreaming for under-12s. It works remarkably well. Adapter Jude Christian slices and fillets (Horatio is out but “To be or not to be” is in), keeping faith with Shakespeare’s text while adding a few choice lines of his own.

The main plot is crisp and clear, reinforced by the song and kept easily accessible in Tinuke Craig’s vigorous production. There are a few cheesy moments and occasional blocking decisions: blackmailing the actors with their backs to the audience, for example. And the philosophical scope of the play naturally diminishes, as the moral complexities of Hamlet’s dilemma flatten out into a debate of wills, producing a raucous cheer from the watching children as he finally passes through Claudius.

But the characters and relationships are clearly defined: Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia stings sharply, her murder of Polonius draws gasps, and her isolation and grief are keenly felt. Craig prefaces the action with the old king’s funeral, and as the procession lays a wreath marked “ROI”, Hamlet stands mute clutching his own marked “DAD”. At subsequent wedding celebrations, it hovers like a dark cloud on a sunny afternoon.

Kiren Kebaili-Dwyer as Hamlet is really, really good. He beautifully conveys the mixture of anguish and rage of his character. For all the fuss, the magnitude and pain of the tragedy stands out strongly. Each deceased character quietly throws a veil over their head – an echo of that looming, puffy ghost. In the end, the entire cast is enveloped: a simple device that eloquently shows the death toll and encapsulates this intelligent and lively mise-en-scène.

★★★★☆

On April 6, then tour of primary schools, nationaltheatre.org.uk

Lara Lewis and Matthew Romain in ‘The Mozart Question’ © Alex Tabrizi

Mozart’s Question

Barn Theatre, Cirencester

Fathers and sons take center stage this week and, with them, raise questions about belonging and identity. At Michael Morpurgo’s Mozart’s Questionadapted for the stage by Vicki Berwick and director Jessica Daniels, music becomes the key to unlocking a terrible secret and confronting the horrors of the Holocaust.

Morpurgo wrote his 2007 novel after coming across an intriguing painting on a street in Venice. Returning home from a night out, the writer came across an elderly violinist playing under a street lamp under the gaze of only one person – a little boy in pajamas. For Morpurgo, this musical bond between two strangers sparked an idea. In his story, the boy becomes Paolo Levi, a naturally gifted young musician, bewildered by the discovery that his talented father refuses to play; the old man becomes Benjamin, who offers to teach the budding violinist.

A crisis encounter between teacher, parents and son reveals the truth: Paolo’s father, interned in a Nazi death camp and forced to play in the orchestra, owes his survival to his genius as a violinist. The very music that supported him now torments him, tainted by the horrible associations it brings. Mozart, above all, seems lost to him forever.

Morpurgo tells the story through a series of flashbacks: memories within memories, starting with adult Paolo opening up about his past to a fledgling journalist, then going back to the musician’s childhood. On stage, it seems a little clunky – a rather stilted device to take us back in time, despite fine performances from Matthew Romain as the grown-up Paolo, Lara Lewis as the bright-eyed boy and Ian Harris as the nice guy. Benjamin.

But what makes this production so special is its use of live music. Most of the ensemble can play and the show is packed with beautiful string music: Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach, Brahms and klezmer, all arranged by Rudy Percival. It’s a reminder of music’s ability to transform and transport; it reminds of the cruelty of using this beauty to conceal brutality. Above all, it has a healing quality that goes to the heart of the story. The fourth adaptation of Morpurgo’s work by the Barn Theatre, this is a tender and touching show about surviving trauma and the consequences that entails.

★★★★☆

As of April 30, barntheatre.org.uk

An older man sits smiling in front of a piano while a younger man stands beside it with his arms outstretched

David Owen Norris, left, and Barney Norris in ‘The Wellspring’ © Robert Day

Source

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Finally to a play that once again picks up the threads of who we are and where we belong but defies genre and convention to do so. This time it’s a real father and his son standing before us in Sourcea touching, witty and highly original event conceived by writer Barney Norris and his father, composer and pianist David Owen Norris.

The two take to the stage accompanied by a car trailer of matching accessories: a carpet, a table, a hob – even a travel piano. This sense of impermanence pervades the piece, which flits about their shared history like a bird in a thorny hedge. David Owen Norris remembers smoking in secret on a bridge over the M1 motorway and wondering about the roads, paths and links; Barney remembers being slapped across the face by a road sign that read “Changed Priorities Ahead.” Triumphs and personal traumas intertwine with memories of place, snippets of folk songs, and their own changing relationship.

There’s music from both, mostly by David Owen Norris, who plays haunting excerpts from Elgar, Beethoven, Handel and his own work as he reminisces about critical moments in his career: the secret piano sessions of the sick room at school; a traumatic experience at the Sydney Piano Competition; performance at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. “You take your music where you find it,” he says.

Shaped on stage by director Jude Christian, the show explores the sources of creativity, the nature of storytelling and how art springs from life. And like much of Barney Norris’ work, it is deeply concerned with the meaning of ‘home’. “Fidelity to your own vision,” says David Owen Norris at one point. “It’s important in everything you do.” He talks about himself, but he could talk about his son, as this sweet and singular evening illustrates.

★★★★☆

The race ended in Northampton but the show is now on tour, royalandderngate.co.uk

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