Thursday, February 19, 2015

'Hamlet' at the Cockpit Theatre, 18th February 2015

It's unanimously agreed that Bill Shakespeare knew how to put a play together. You don't climb to the top of the English literary canon without a few hits under your belt, and who can argue with crackers like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and King Lear?  And at the tip-toppermost of the pile the downright delightful Hamlet, a badass revenge thriller with ghosts, stabbings, skeletons, poisonings and multiple counts of regicide. It contains all the ingredients of a seat-of-your-pants grindhouse stunner, only to be let down by a butt-numbing unabridged four hour run time.

English Repertory Theatre obviously recognise that shortcoming, and have gone at Hamlet with pruning shears, taming it into a lean 90 minute thriller that condenses the play down to its fundamentals. Their tagline: "There is no ghost. There is no equivocation. Only revenge." Or, as I prefer to put it: "Less talky talky, more stabby stabby".

Ditching the 'been there, done that' medieval trappings of the traditional staging, director Gavin Davis reimagines Elsinore is an exclusive boarding school. Our action centres around Horatio's (David Alwyn) "modern Danish history" study group, attended by the young Laertes (Alexander Neal), his sister Ophelia (Nina Bright), goody goody Rosencrantz (Charlotte Ellen) and moody eyeliner aficionado Hamlet (Rachel Waring).

Hamlet isn't happy. A letter from his dead Dad explains that Uncle Claudius (Jon House) bumped him off, and to rub salt into the wound he's only gone and married Hamlet's Mum Gertrude (Helen Bang). This injustice will not stand, and a murderous Hamlet sets out on a roaring rampage of revenge. No gut will go unpunctured! No poison undrunk! No blade unbloodied! You might say... DEATH COMES TO ELSINORE!

Reducing Hamlet into a fast-paced, action-packed extravaganza is dramatic blasphemy, but I've always enjoyed shows that go out of their way to tweak stuffy purist's noses. But is it actually any good? Well, in this condensed form a whole bunch goes out of the window: the militaristic background hum beyond the walls of Elsinore is relegated to a history lesson, the travelling players and their play-within-a-play is now a ropey school production courtesy of the four pupils and even poor Guildenstern is subsumed into the expanded role of Rosencrantz.

The most obvious consequence of this reduction of the text is that Waring's Hamlet has no time for procrastination. Given that fannying about and looking for ways to put off avenging his Dad is an enormous part of the traditional Hamlet, this is a pretty big shift in personality. This makes some plot elements a bit confusing. For example, when Hamlet hovers over the praying Claudius it's all too easy to understand Shakespeare's vacillating Prince putting off the deed for fear of sending Claudius to heaven, but somewhat less believable for English Rep's bloody-minded revenge seeker.

Throughout there's the sense that the play has been forcefully crowbarred into too small a space; soliloquys becoming performances to others and characters condensed to slightly confusing effect. The upshot is that were this anyone's first Hamlet they'd be pretty damn confused. As we rocket through the text at breakneck speed we zip through immortal lines, iconic lines and character development, the production feeling in danger of tripping over its own feet.

Horatio (David Alywn) catches Hamlet (Rachel Waring) and Ophelia (Nina Bright) drinking rum and cokes in a pub.
It never does, largely thanks to the excellent cast, neat staging and a careful eye for physical theatre. Played in the round, the centre of the aptly named Cockpit becomes a classroom, the set composed of a series of white tables, chairs and a model skeleton with two rapiers perched in its chest. This malleable set is constantly being reconfigured by the cast, becoming variously a classroom, a stage or graveyard. It's most effective moment comes during Claudius' soliliquy. With the tables arranged into one block, a terrified Hamlet hides underneath as Claudius furiously tosses table after table away. The prince scurries into the ever-decreasing hiding spaces, the tension palpable.

There's no weak spots in the cast but my standouts were: Oliver Hume's waffly, puffed up Polonius, appropriately played as man who's not half as intelligent and quick-thinking as he thinks he is; Charlotte Ellen's Rosencrantz, a goody two-shoes who drastically underestimates the seriousness of the situation; and Nina Bright's Ophelia, her believable adolescence making her suicide that much more tragic.

But let's face it, all eyes are on Rachel Waring's Hamlet. Somewhat overshadowed in the 'female Hamlet' stakes by Maxine Peake, the programme quickly reminds us that Waring is the "youngest woman ever to play Hamlet". In practice its her youthful looks rather than her gender that proves more crucial. Waring's Hamlet is more punk-rock-fuck-you than reserved regal dignity. Full of energy, we hear her the lead other characters on a manic backstage chase, muffled yells of "VENGEANCE!" heard from the direction of the bar. Fun as she is to watch, her Hamlet is also layered with faintly disturbing sadism. Rarely have I seen someone take so much pleasure in dispatching Polonius, the obvious glee making the line "I'll lug his guts into the next room" quite disturbing.

The sheer energy of the cast, guided by Gavin Davis' steady direction, make this Hamlet a successful piece of theatre. It's arguable whether this is good Shakespeare; so much is peeled away that we're left with the skeleton of the text, chewy fat and emotional texture discarded in favour of streamlined sinew and muscularity. If this were the only Hamlet in town I'd be disappointed, but among umpteen other adaptations it stands out by virtue of its boldness. Messy, chaotic and hot-blooded, but fun as hell. 


Hamlet is at the Cockpit Theatre until 15th March. Tickets here.

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