Tuesday, June 3, 2014

'Hamlet' at Riverside Studios, 31st May 2014


For a play about an indecisive loser whose half-baked plans get everyone killed, William Shakespeare's Hamlet is actually pretty good.  It's my favourite Shakespeare - which is perhaps a bit of a cliched choice - but I've always felt Hamlet is as incisive in 2014 as it was in 1614.  Jealousy, anger, lust and guilt are part of the universal human condition, all fully realised in the sympathetic character of Hamlet.  Who can't sympathise with putting off an important project as long as feasibly possible, hurting people you care about with casual lies or just straight-up being a bit dippy, morose and self obsessed?

It's this relatable psychology that makes Hamlet so malleable.  From slight tweaks like Kenneth Branagh's 19th century imperial splendour in his 1996 adaptation, to wholesale modernisations like Michael Almereyda's 2000 contemporary reworking with Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, CEO of The Denmark Corporation (also featuring Bill Murray as Polonius!) to the most popular modern take on the material: Disney's The Lion King.  Here, in Zoé Ford's adaptation, Elsinore becomes Her Majesty's Prison Liverpool.  Claudius is the warden, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are snitches and Hamlet himself is an inmate, the show opening with his graphic strip-search.

Oftentimes a Shakespeare production can become unstuck when it tries to crowbar the material into a particular setting, and I had my doubts that Hamlet would even make sense within a prison.  After all, Hamlet is a Prince and much of the narrative is predicated on him being able to move through the castle as he wishes.  His position also allows his increasingly bizarre behaviour to be tolerated by those around him.  How can this work when he's confined to a cell at the lowest rung of the social ladder?

When Hamlet gets really angry his hair goes a bit 1990s.
 Ford's clever solution is just to hand wave most of these problems away.  The prison setting thus becomes more about tone than location; the adaptation underlining the play's pent-up masculinity, homoeroticism and authoritarian misery.  This is conveyed by an impressively minimalist set.  The stage at the Riverside Theatre is wide and shallow, the stage walls painted in institutional two-tone with exposed electrical transformers powering the lighting rig.  Locations are delineated by three barred walls on wheels, moved around to create cells, corridors and offices.  This, combined with the high contrast lighting that throws chiaroscuro shadows over the actor's faces makes for a pressure cooker environment; a place where the bloody violence of Hamlet's final scenes feels even more inevitable than usual.

And boy oh boy is this a violent Hamlet.  In place of mannered, balletic rapiers duels these characters have brawny, visceral shiv fights.  When Hamlet duels with Laertes it's a bare-knuckle boxing match where elbows smash teeth from gums, blood streams from swollen cuts and bones are brutally shattered.  There's a protracted beating dished out by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that's painfully drawn out, a symphony of thumping body blows and cries of pain.  In less capable hands this might all feel a bit gratuitous - a way to make Shakespeare 'cool' for the kids - but within the prison setting it feels appropriate, the caveman barbarism contrasting neatly with the flowery language.

Another weapon in Ford's arsenal is the frequent slippage of the Shakespearian 'mask'.  Characters frequently switch in tone between Shakespearian iambic pentameter and a casual, Alan Clarkish naturalism.  For example, during the 'play-within-a-play', the actors bicker at each other like teenagers stuck in a GCSE English lesson ,squabbling about whether kissing each other is 'gay' or not.  Similarly, the actors often slip out of the prose to make asides to each other "don't fuckin' look at me like that mate" or "I'll fuckin' av' you".  This, coupled with the nasal Scouser accent, gives Shakespeare's wordy tangled prose a vaguely Brechtian artificiality (something highlighted when the fire exit is thrown open and Hamlet briefly walks out onto a humid Hammersmith street).

You have to fight the urge to shout out "Get 'im Hamlet!"
Adam Lawrence's Hamlet is a sweatily intense nutter, muscles bulging from within a wifebeater and hair loosely slicked back over his head.  Lawrence's approach is to play up the weird discontinuity between the depressive/suicidal soliloquys and the hyper-masculine alpha posturing.  The sense that Hamlet is playing a role is a vital component of the play, Lawrence's disconnect between his actions and his internal monologue making him seem vulnerable and sympathetic even as he puts his knee through a someone's jaw.  Textually Hamlet is pretending to be mad, but Lawrence's Hamlet plays up actual madness - the actor maniacally pacing about the stage with bulging eyes, compulsively slicking back his hair and, at one point, bursting randomly into a snatch of Joy Division's Transmission.

Any Shakespeare adaptation that manages to sneak in Joy Division is okay in my book, but Ford's Hamlet impresses throughout. It's not perfect mind you, Gertrude is relegated to staring in mild consternation and I was never quite sure what Ophelia was supposed to be doing in the prison, but then the focus of this Hamlet is masculinity and violence. So, while unfortunate, it's at least understandable why femininity has been sidelined here.

This could so easily have been an enormous embarrassment: a bunch of high-falutin' public school boys playing at proletariat aggression, but Ford's production emanates an oppressive sense of menace that succeeds in not only breathing life into dusty prose but actually making it feel unpredictable.  Considering that Hamlet is a play everyone knows inside and out that's no small achievement - well worth checking out.

Hamlet is at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith:
Wednesday 28 May to Saturday 21 June at 7.30pm
Sunday 22 June at 5.00pm

TICKETS: £16 (£14 concs.)

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