Shakespeare gives a variety of psychological and theological reasons for young Hamlet’s inability to avenge his uncle’s murder of his father. Freddie Fox’s portrayal adds the possibility that the prince’s hands might shake too much to stab straight.
This is not due to any lack of confidence in an emotionally wrenching and vocally ranging portrayal but because this student prince is, fascinatingly, a full-on alcoholic. Returning from Wittenberg uni draining a big whisky bottle, he understandably gags on his mother’s swift-wedding champagne but soon swigs down gin, entirely justifying the playing of Hamlet’s “till then sit still, my soul” as an attempt to settle delirium tremens. He visibly fears that the visitation from his father’s ghost may be his own consumption of spirits speaking. Attempting white-knuckle self-rehab while seeking revenge adds another layer to the usual complication of whether Hamlet’s “antic disposition” is acted or involuntary.
This narrative refreshment is served in the atmospheric setting of Guildford’s Holy Trinity Church, with the stage a raised platform in the chancel, and characters entering through rood screen and nave.
Tom Littler, the most enterprising Shakespearean director outside the big venues, mines every site specificity. The sad songs of Rosalind Ford’s dignified Ophelia are, unusually, set to Bach. Stefan Bednarczyk’s Polonius is plausibly a bishop of the Danish church, with the actor impressively multiskilling by playing the organ live. During a “manic” episode, Fox nicks the adviser’s mitre and stole for some comic business in the pulpit, including a perfect impersonation of the coffin-lowering motor in a crematorium.
The surrounds underline the play’s integral Christianity – Hamlet cannot kill himself or Claudius for avowedly doctrinal reasons – but also add darkness as the space is taken over by the graves and skulls that, in religious terms, churches pledge to transcend.
This is, in every sense, a Littler production: the director intelligently trims about 50 roles in the second quarto to 16, played by eight actors. The travelling players become a monologist and, just before his performance, you panic that the doubling can’t possibly work, until the show achieves one of numerous Houdini solutions, which also include a disembodied Edward Fox making a touching contribution as Hamlet’s father in two senses.