To be or not to be - on a forest stage

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Red Rose Chain, Rendlesham Forest Centre until August 26Open-air theatre has proliferated over the past decade. When Red Rose Chain does its open-air shows in Rendlesham Forest, however, it's on a different scale from others you might see.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Red Rose Chain, Rendlesham Forest Centre until August 26

Open-air theatre has proliferated over the past decade. When Red Rose Chain does its open-air shows in Rendlesham Forest, however, it's on a different scale from others you might see. Most are touring companies, there for a few performances and then moving on to next venue - and none the worse for that.

Red Rose Chain now has what feels like a permanent summer home at Rendlesham. It's more than just a clearing in the forest. This is a well-prepared roofless theatre with the forest as a stunning backdrop to a set of boxes, trunks, ladders, mops and poles piled high on a wheeled float with double doors for entrances.

There's a mixture of raked seating and bring-your-own foldable seating in the promenade area, refreshments marquees, elaborate arrangements for parking - it's all there on the big scale.


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Good sized and appreciative audiences are what they've come almost to expect. For Joanna Carrick's ambitious production of Hamlet, that's what they'll get.

It's ambitious on several counts. The play normally takes four hours. The director has set herself the task of cutting it by half without destroying it. This is done remarkably well - the main victims of the chop being Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The action flows briskly and the poetry is kept intact.

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The other task for Joanna Carrick is to project the play's brooding introspection onto the vast canvas. Here's where Red Rose Chain really scores. There can be no whispering in an auditorium like this. Like the ancient Greeks, the actors have to give it plenty of welly without losing meaning.

Key scenes are visually well done. I've not seen a fight scene to match this one for years. The gravedigger scene is knockabout but pungently ironic, the burial of Ophelia intense, the players scene colourful and threatening, the big ghost puppet ritualistic, and there are processions, dance, drumming and music.

Jimmy Grimes (amazingly also the set designer) gives a towering performance as Hamlet. He has a vibrant presence and a voice so clear that not word is lost. Elinor Lawless makes a compelling Ophelia. Her madness scene is enough to break your heart.

There's strength in depth - Joanna Carrick's Gertrude, David Newborn as Claudius and clever pair of performances as Polonius and the First Gravedigger by Dan Starkey.

A thought. I wonder if a few rostra at the front of the set wouldn't have been of help. The audiences will be large and in this play it's important to see everything.

Ivan Howlett

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