Big black clouds swirled above Roker Park as I joined the audience gathering for this fourth and final alfresco performance of Hamlet by Theatre Space North East.
I looked around at several, shall we say, “optimistically dressed” punters and crossed my fingers inside anorak pockets. I hoped for their sake the rain would hold off for the next two hours.
It didn’t. The heavens opened as the performance commenced and varied between stair rod and medium force power shower, leaving only the final scene rain-free.
Although one third of the audience were unprepared for the weather, the actors and crew knew what to expect after torrential rain soaked their opening night.
But then, Theatre Space North East is used to working with the weather. Its motto is “any space is a theatre space” and the company specialises in utilising Sunderland’s parks as well as churches, hotels and bars. Events are free but audiences are encouraged to donate monetary tokens of appreciation.
Previous summer seasons have included Shakespeare but the company struck gold with this year’s Hamlet. Despite being set in Denmark, the 400 year old play says so much about British culture, with countless phrases still part of our everyday language.
Theatre Space North East writer and actor David Farn adapted the play for Roker Park and ensured the play’s juicy themes: concurrent political and familial unrest, grief, death, love, guilt plus madness versus sanity were laid out for the cast to get their teeth into.
And how. There’s not space to list every actor but the entire cast deserves praise. If I must single out actors then lead Jacob Anderton captured Hamlet’s grief and diamond-sharp intelligence.
Luke Maddison’s Horatio was a touching reminder that loyalty and enduring friendship can still exist, even in a “rotten state” like Denmark. Lynn Lawson, Alex Goodchild and David Farn excelled as various supporting characters.
Dale Jewitt’s dual roles of Claudius and ghost of his dead brother meant we never forgot we were witnessing the tragic consequences of fratricide, incest and deposition rather than a rightful coronation and joyful remarriage.
This open air Hamlet was faithful to the theatre performed in Shakespeare’s time: using natural light and attracting an interactive all-age audience. Children, retired folk and a wheelchair user were led from scene to scene by Theatre Space North East crew in their distinctive orange hoodies.
Following the murder of Polonius, daughter Ophelia walked through the audience dispensing flowers and singing distractedly. As actress Kylie Ann Ford handed me a small bunch and delivered a line, I bit my lip. For a few seconds I was interacting with a grieving daughter and spurned lover.
The final scene was genuinely thrilling given our proximity to the action. I missed Queen Gertrude’s death throes because I was willing Hamlet to win the sword-fight. This shows the power of the performance. I studied Hamlet at school and university. I knew the protagonist was going to die but that didn’t stop me wanting our tragic hero to triumph in front of Roker Park’s bandstand.
I have one gripe. The sound of passing cars diverted my attention during scenes performed near the park’s entrances. The further we walked into Roker Park, the more like Elsinore it became.
Cars aside, this was an engrossing, impressive theatrical experience which highlighted Sunderland’s heritage and talent.
Theatre Space North East will be performing Treasure Island in Mowbray Park and Twelfth Night in Barnes Park this summer. See www.theatrespace.org.uk for more details and don’t forget to take your brolly!