REVIEW: Hamlet for young audiences (National Theatre)

If you’re thinking of taking the children to see some Shakespeare, Hamlet is unlikely to be the first play that springs to mind. Not only is it the longest of his plays, but a dark and twisty tragedy is not the obvious introduction to the Bard for young audiences. Undeterred by such a challenge, the National Theatre is offering a pocket-sized production of Hamlet for ages 8-12. Originally produced in 2022, this lively adaptation masterfully proves that brevity is the soul of wit.

Adapted by Jude Christian, the punchy production distills the famously lengthy play into a single Act of 65 minutes. Though this may sound like madness, there is most certainly method in it and the result is an exciting show that remains true to the spirit of the play while making it accessible to a much younger audience. However many productions of Hamlet you’ve sat through in the past, you’ve probably never seen one featuring a bubble machine before!

Simeon Desvignes as Hamlet. Photo credit: Harry Elletson

Though plenty of the original text remains, it is necessarily trimmed and interspersed with modern references. Music (from composer and sound designer, Dom Coyote) is used to excellent effect, also blending traditional and modern elements to create something atmospheric yet comfortingly familiar to young children. (The Wellerman sea shanty was definitely a highlight for many in attendance.)

Ellie Hurt’s direction ensures that the production strikes a careful balance between light and shade, conveying the magnitude of the tragedy without ever lingering too long on a sad or scary moment. The ghostly apparition is suitably spooky (causing a fair few year 4 children in front of me to hide behind their hands) without tipping into terrifying territory. Early deaths are quick and occasionally comical, but there is no shying away from the sense of human loss that follows.

To aid understanding of the difficult text, the plot is clearly conveyed visually (with the aid of design by Frankie Bradshaw). The characters are each dressed in unmistakable bright costumes, deaths are marked by the veiling of faces and crucial moments in the final scene are signposted by clever use of colour on props. There were audible shrieks from the children in the front row when Gertrude (Claire Redcliffe) grabbed the goblet filled with poison.

Curtis Callier and Kathrine Payne as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Image credit: Harry Elletson

Simeon Desvignes is a likeable Hamlet, initially playing the protagonist in a light-hearted manner before descending deeper into a convincing madness. Monique Walker and Annabel Terry get some of the grittier moments, effectively conveying the anguish and rage of Ophelia and Laertes respectively, while Kathrine Payne and Curtis Callier offer light relief as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Overall, Hamlet is a lively and engaging adaptation that successfully delivers on the aim of introducing Shakespeare to a new generation. The reactions of the school groups at the press performance are a testament to the brilliance of this production. The primary school children in particular were absolutely captivated throughout, throwing themselves into the audience participation with gusto. It feels fitting, therefore, to give the last word to the little boy in front of me who turned to his teacher at the end at the end and shouted “that was awesome”.

Hamlet plays at the Dorman Theatre from 20 to 28 March 2023 following a national schools tour. We received a complimentary press ticket to the performance on 21 March.

Image credit: Harry Elletson