Hamlet review: Gyles Brandreth turns Shakespeare’s tragedy into a family affair ★★★

The broadcaster and former MP stars alongside his son and daughter-in-law in a 90-minute three-hander - Nick Wells is pleasantly surprised

Hamlet at Park Theatre

It’s not often you get three Hamlets on the London theatre scene at the same time. While Andrew Scott is still receiving rave reviews in Robert Icke’s acclaimed production (to be screened on BBC2 next year), and Tom Hiddleston opens in his internet-melting Kenneth Branagh-directed RADA fundraiser, another Danish prince has taken the stage to lament poor Yorick in the guise of Benet Brandreth.

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Who, I hear you ask? And well you might, because he’s not a household name. Nor, in fact, is he even an actor per se. According to his bio, he’s “a critically acclaimed performer, barrister, rhetoric coach and authority on Shakespeare”. He’s also the actual son of his onstage father Gyles Brandreth, the former MP and loquacious jester on shows such as Have I Got News For You and Just A Minute, who you’d expect to see in panto rather than a Shakespearian tragedy.

Hamlet at Park Theatre
Gyles Brandreth and Kosha Engler in Hamlet at Park Theatre (photos by Francis Loney)

Kosha Engler, wife and daughter-in-the-law of Brandreth Junior and Senior respectively, is the third member of this three-hander. She’s a bonafide actress but more recognisable as the voice of Maybelline. In a production that has been stripped back to just a handful of the main characters, she pivots between the roles of Horatio, Gertrude, an Ophelia possessed of a manic love-lorn fervour, and an alluring and flirtatious female Rosencrantz.

The set-up might sound curious but this certainly isn’t pantomime. Directing is the more than trustworthy Simon Evans, who was recently at the Donmar overseeing Lenny Henry’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Despite his best efforts in each of his four very different roles, Gyles can’t help but be Gyles – slightly hammy and over-the-top in expression, delivery and gesticulation.

For someone in their first stage role, Benet is also surprisingly persuasive. While his movement and gestures feel a tad too deliberate and over-accentuated at times, and he lacks a fluid ease, his delivery (as you would hope of a rhetoric coach) is crisp and convincing. Engler is superb in every part.

Set in a modern kitchen around a large dining table, the revised script plays up the familial tension between the mourning Hamlet, his mother and the plotting Claudius. It does this well, but ultimately suffers more than it gains by what it leaves out. Hamlet’s descent from his initial feigning of madness to a point where he may have lost his grip on reality is lost, and there’s none of the complexity as he wrestles with the weight of his own mortality. Even the famous line “to be or not to be…” is nowhere to be seen.

There’s a decent amount to enjoy here, but as it reaches the denouement, the liberties taken with the text become more absurd. In order to accommodate Laertes into the plot, Ophelia develops multiple personality disorder, channelling her brother so he can seek vengeance through her in an unlikely turn of events. And, with the increasingly rapid character alternations becoming a little confusing, the refashioned end is somewhat anticlimactic.

But for all its flaws, it’s an enjoyable Hamlet-lite with some decent performances and nice touches. Messrs Scott and Hiddleston won’t be throwing their skulls back in their plots just yet, but you could do a lot worse for an evening’s entertainment.

Hamlet is at Park Theatre until 16 September


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