Hamlet – The Lion and the Unicorn Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Harry Reed

For anyone who has experienced the close to 4-hour versions of Hamlet that have been popular since Andrew Scott took to the stage at the Almeida, the possibility of sensibly condensing Shakespeare’s most renowned work to just over an hour seems enticing but surely impossible. Yet, director Harry Reed has done just that in a new version staged at the Lion and the Unicorn Theatre pub set in a single room as a duologue between the Prince of Denmark and his beleaguered best friend Horatio.

Trapped in a small student flat that looks like an Oxbridge enclave, a somewhat drug-addled Hamlet has visions of his father, soon becoming convinced he was murdered by his uncle. With only Horatio to talk to, Hamlet’s ravings and erratic behaviour test the friendship as his paranoia grows. Convinced he is being spied on, a plot to oust his uncle begins with Horatio doing everything he can to stand by his friend.

Reed’s interpretation of the play takes a little getting used to as thousands of words of dialogue from a large cast of characters are quickly compressed. Retaining the order of the play and using extracts from Shakespeare’s original text, soon the audience can only be impressed by the skill in which Reed and cast members Joseph Ryan-Hughes and Alex Dean have reconstructed this play as a two-person piece while still being narratively, thematically and psychologically recognisable as Hamlet.

The key to this is a valid reading of Hamlet’s character as fundamentally mad, implying that the world of Elsinore, the ghostly visitations and even the existence of his family are created in his imagination. “You are divided from yourself and your fair judgement”, Horatio states (adapting lines said of Ophelia originally), the very basis for this interpretation that repurposes lines spoken by other characters and gives them predominantly to Horatio who is merged with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gertrude and Polonius by turn. The key is that it is Hamlet who sees Horatio as different people or fails to recognise him at all, a symptom of the mental illness from which he suffers and self-medicates.

But while the idea is a sound one, the concept runs out of steam towards the end and having sustained a fairly reasonable pattern of rages and periods of calm, the section from the gravedigger scene to the end is rather rushed, as though unsure how to reconceive Hamlet’s ending if Ophelia has been removed entirely from the story. Hamlet has a tussle with Horatio who speaks Laertes’ lines but the unsatisfactory haste at the end needs more thinking through.

There is also a slight tension between the comedy and serious aspects of this production with the early part of the show aiming for laughs as Ryan-Hughes expansively rages as Hamlet. The performance could be brought down a little because while there is no ambiguity about Hamlet’s madness, the size of it overshadows the nuance that comes later. Still, Ryan-Hughes delivers a tremendous ‘To be or not to be’ speech that is contemplative, wistful and full of understanding about the conversation Hamlet is having with himself about mortality and what may lie beyond it. Many more experienced actors have failed to interpret this text as well as Ryan-Hughes does here.

Alex Dean has quite a different responsibility, acting as a sounding board for his friend, while trying to make the words of almost every other character in Shakespeare’s version feel like a singular perspective. Dean does this well and adds a certain frustration with Hamlet, almost an in-joke that he talks too much about nothing, which is an enjoyable aside for the audience.

Of course, you lose a great deal in characterisation, depth and texture, not to mention the savage cuts to the language, but to compress a Shakespeare play without turning it into a farce or devaluing its essence is impressive nonetheless. Hamlet is a play of infinite variety and Reed has found a very interesting avenue for development.

Runs until 26 June 2022

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