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Hamlet in Poole's Cavern

3 starsReviewed by Richard Stamp
Poole's Cavern
8 Jul 5:30pm to 6:30pm, 8:30pm to 9:30pm, 9 Jul 5:30pm to 6:30pm, 7pm to 8pm, 8:30pm to 9:30pm, 10 Jul 5:30pm to 6:30pm, 7pm to 8pm, 8:30pm to 9:30pm, 11 Jul 5:30pm to 6:30pm, 7pm to 8pm, 8:30pm to 9:30pm, 12 Jul 5:30pm to 6:30pm, 7pm to 8pm, 8:30pm to 9:30pm, 13 Jul 5:30pm to 6:30pm, 7pm to 8pm, 8:30pm to 9:30pm

Another year, another foray into the bowels of the Earth. Butterfly’s productions in Poole’s Cavern have become a fixture at the Buxton Fringe, combining a genuinely stunning backdrop with some reliably enjoyable promenade theatre. And I was intrigued by their choice of script this time round: after all, cutting Shakespeare’s longest play down to just an hour was always going to pose a formidable artistic challenge.

But now that I’ve seen it, I can’t help suspect they picked Hamlet more for its crowd-pulling power than on creative grounds.  Sometimes, shifting a familiar play to an unfamiliar setting can unlock a new understanding of its themes; but in this case, I didn’t feel Butterfly offered any particular justification for recreating the State of Denmark in a cave.  The famous play-within-a-play, viewed across a chasm, is a notable example where the unique environment works well, but I felt that most of the scenes could have been done in exactly the same way almost anywhere.

The acting, however, offered some stand-out moments.  Jade Matthews’ Ophelia was an entertaining creation, wide-eyed and confident, reminding me a little of the love interests who populate Hollywood rom-coms.  Of all the actors, I thought Matthews did most to bring an interesting new dimension to her role – though I must admit her contemporary demeanour wasn’t quite in keeping with the traditional tenor of the play.  John Bateman as Claudius also caught my eye, in this case for a solidly conventional but utterly enthralling soliloquy, which I had the good fortune to witness from barely six feet away.

Ed Hulme was engaging and commendably unselfish in the title role – but I was left with the frustrating sense that he’d have had more to give, if it weren’t for the need to race from scene to scene stuck in top gear.  The unrelenting pace was, in fact, a repeated problem: one early passage saw characters arriving and departing from all directions, each to declaim just a handful of lines, an arrangement which felt more like a sketch show than Shakespeare.  On the other hand, for such a radical abridgement, this production told the tale of Hamlet extremely well.  I think I could have gone in with no prior knowledge of the plot, and still just about followed along.

Shows in Poole’s Cavern are always crowd-pleasers – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – and Butterfly invariably put on a slick production, with effective marshalling and striking motifs.  Highlights this time included an eerie a cappella greeting, and the striking use of bright red cloaks to indicate actors who were standing out of a scene.  As an interpretation of Hamlet, then, I’m not sure this entirely worked… but as a carefree hour of entertainment, it’s worth the venture underground.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2013.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.