Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Mark Leipacher
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
With little in the way of set design, costume or music, many companies would struggle to create the rotten state of Denmark and its dysfunctional royal family, and to sustain a production of this play for three hours. The Faction have a good track record and can usually draw upon a seemingly limitless supply of inventiveness. Like any great team, however, they have their off days, and this is not their best work. Strangely, part of the problem is that this play — great as it is — is not Shakespeare’s best either, and its faults expose an underperforming ensemble.
One coup is to cast Simon Russell Beale as the Ghost, who appears a little too literally in spirit only, on film. In their trademark style, the whole cast is onstage with each actor holding up a small round cushion to create a makeshift screen. On to this fluid collage is projected the image of Hamlet’s father, returned from the grave to reveal to his son the horrible truth about how he was killed by his brother. The flickering image, captured in midair, is tremendous, as of course is Beale’s delivery. Set against the big-name actor, however, is the loss of intimacy. The Ghost speaks into the middle distance and there’s no eye contact between father and son during what should be a dramatic scene.
A similar curtailment occurs during Hamlet’s encounter with Polonius, when he mockingly calls the councillor a fishmonger. Polonius is miked up and instead of speaking his asides to the audience he delivers them into the microphone pinned onto his lapel. Again, this would be fine on screen but in the theatre it represents a lost opportunity: such lines usually generate both conspiracy and comedy but here they simply draw attention to the rather clumsy technical apparatus of an eavesdropping state.
No one expects a barrel of laughs in Hamlet’s company, but it’s also unusual for a Shakespeare play to be so drained of humour. Only the gravediggers raise a chuckle, while the early scene between an innocent Ophelia (in a simple, flowery dress) and a nervous Laertes (in jeans and t-shirt), which has them both primly engaging in lewd mimes, is actually a bit creepy for a brother and sister.
Other interpretations (such as Horatio in a dog collar and Polonius coughing up blood) are likely to leave the audience scratching their heads in bemusement. One of the few innovations that does work occurs at the end of the play within a play. Gonzago has been murdered, and while Gertrude and the rest of the court all lean forward in their seats as the climax approaches, Claudius leans back, in shock, fully aware of the story’s meaning.
There were occasional lapses in the verse speaking. For example, Claudius pronounces “impious” (“Of impious stubbornness”) with its usual stress on the middle syllable. The iambic rhythm, however, calls for a stress on the first syllable and a scrunching of the second and third syllables into one, which would then create an allusion to Hamlet as a troublesome imp, which is exactly how the new king views his nephew.
Jonny McPherson is a Hamlet who does reflection better than high emotion and yet who shows no remorse over the murder of Polonius or his rôle in the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Damian Lynch is the efficient politician, Claudius, who surprises himself and us with his heartfelt attack of conscience as he tries to pray. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark if Claudius appears more human than Hamlet.