Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Sean Holmes
Can you improve on the greatest play ever written? Sean Holmes thinks we must as his new production of Hamlet opens at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, the first time the play has been performed in this space. Forget all that existential musing on life and death, the inability to avenge, and the nature of grief, what Hamlet really needs is to lighten up and in George Fouracres’ central performance every great speech is played for laughs, even his death.
Prince Hamlet is in mourning for his father but when his spirit comes to visit him with a tale of murder most foul, Hamlet is bent on revenge against his own Uncle, now the King, who committed the deed. Unable to act without proof, Hamlet entices a group of actors to perform a similar story to alert Claudius’s conscience but absorbed in his own dramas, Hamlet fails to recognise the effect of his actions on the wider court.
In modernising this more humorous approach to Hamlet, Holmes removes Priam and Hecuba entirely replacing them with a slightly too knowing speech from Romeo and Juliet instead; gone are the verses Shakespeare wrote for Ophelia, substituted for more modern songs and the gravedigger becomes a meta instrument for a surreal audience singalong with a Catholic priest in what feels like a deleted scene from Father Ted.
It’s all highly crowd-pleasing stuff but Holmes’ production is littered with similar unexplained choices in what is an energetic if uneven interpretation. Grace Smart’s design and particularly Jackie Orton’s costume choices are a mysterious blend of deeply traditional Tudor dress for all of the characters except Hamlet who has a 1990s (rather than 1590s) emo-look. Even the ghost inexplicably pops up in a bit of leftover costume from a Roman epic leaving the audience to wonder if he’s really ‘thy father’s spirit’ or an extra from Julius Caesar.
Returning from the first interval, the marbled panelling of the court has been replaced with graffitied walls covered in the protagonist’s philosophical questioning, cassette tapes and teddy bears are the love tokens that Ophelia returns while Holmes expands the script with several sweary additions. Beyond the obvious notion of Hamlet’s relevance today, it’s never clear what Holmes and his team are trying to say.
Fouracres’ central character is one of the most dislikeable you’ve ever seen, self-involved, dour, sulky or shouty and generally unpleasant. There is no real warmth in his Hamlet and instead he is entitled or demanding, an attention-grabbing performance that just for its novelty makes it an interesting experience. But purposefully in this production, Hamlet never truly connects to the deeper, soulful meaning and poetry of Shakespeare’s text, Fouracres’ Hamlet wants the laugh, using his delivery to wring every ounce of sarcasm or amusement even from the character’s lowest moments. The problem is we just don’t care about him.
It is as valid an interpretation of Hamlet as any in a text that leaves an actor a great deal of room and its flippancy accords with the wider approach to the show. But the style does become too unvarying and Fouracres delivers every speech with the same three-word pattern, pausing before saying the next three words. It slows the pace considerably, giving a jagged feel to these introspections and actually muting them with this strange and strangely consistent vocal emphasis.
Other characters are sketched more variably; Rachel Hannah Clarke’s Ophelia is given more to do, adding her to the first Players scene to heap more humiliation on the broken-hearted young woman, and while both Ophelia and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi’s Laertes too rapidly – perhaps to counteract Fouracres’ slow pace – Clarke affectingly presents Ophelia’s eventual decline. John Lightbody brings some gravitas as a younger Polonius as does Polly Frame as Gertrude who seems to be in a more serious version of the play than anyone else.
At 3 hours and 15-minutes, this does start to drag and while the Gravedigger makes a few jokes about the running time it’s hard not to wish some of the extraneous material had been excised. There is innovation here and while it’s not always clear why the company have made its decisions, they have clearly thought hard about a different kind of Hamlet. Yet, it is arguably the greatest play ever written because it speaks to every age, and it doesn’t really need improving.
Runs until 9 April 2022