Commissioned by The Ohio State University’s Arts Initiative in 2012, Hamlet’s Fool is both a stand-alone tragedy piece and a reflection on the possible past of Yorick, known to us only as a skull which provides one of the most famous moments in the Shakespearean canon. Through acting, puppetry and music, he is reincarnated as a helpless observer of the tragedy of Elsinore in a production that is in turn both comic and moving.
Taking on both the writing and performing duties, it cannot be denied that Peter Cutts is a fantastic storyteller. His instinctive enjoyment of telling a tale and interacting with an audience shines through, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Cutts creates the epitome of the Shakespearean fool – witty yet vulnerable, jolly yet mournful and with a modern edge. His out-of-tune piano and cocktail made entirely from Special Brew are delightful details which demonstrate his particular blend of sophistication and ‘down-to-earthiness’. Yorick casts a Beckettian figure: while his Converse Hi Tops, high-waisted trousers and braces are a nod to the clown-esque elements of his character, his shabbiness would not look out of place in a production of Waiting for Godot. Yet Cutts is also adept at switching roles quickly, adopting a range of voices and physical characterisations to portray the duke, the grave-digger or the king with equal aplomb.
There are frequent enough laugh-out-loud moments in Hamlet’s Fool, with the affectations of the duke and the grave-diggers providing the most comedy. Sadly, the portrayal of the queen rather misses the mark: at around her second appearance her babyish, simpering tone ceases to be funny, sporadically plunging the show from entertaining heights to cringeworthy depths. However impressive the rest of his acting, this weak spot is difficult to ignore as it resurfaces regularly. On the other hand, the makeshift puppets created from sheets or coats are surprisingly effective in depicting the young Hamlet or the mysterious ‘little man’, simple enough as not to look out of place but ingeniously capturing our attention. Meanwhile, musical interludes are for the most part effective, with the jaunty yet uneasy refrain always recalling the ominous threat overshadowing the play. However, at times the transition between prose and music should be smoother, particularly in the final – and rather too long – musical passage.
That the majority of this production is effective and original makes the final section all the more disappointing, as the action shifts to ’23 Years Later’. The retelling of the familiar Hamlet story lacks the power and interest of its ‘prequel’, as the imaginative recreation of Yorick becomes a mere narrator to Shakespeare’s tale. It won’t be a huge spoiler to say that Yorick has died in this time, and his reappearance as a ‘spirit’ feels a little like cheating to extend the play. There is not enough exploration of events or character here to make this rather tenuous plot development seem worthwhile, as the show rushes towards the conclusion of Hamlet: the reappearance of the ‘little man’ in particular is anticlimactic as it detracts from the earlier puppetry which worked so well. Having said this, the last moments of the play are suddenly and shockingly moving, as the words of Hamlet’s childhood games are re-echoed in his dying moments.
It is a shame that this show loses its verve and intrigue in the final scenes, as throughout it is a largely compelling piece of theatre which, for its minor faults, provides an interesting take on an extraordinarily famous yet unexplored character, and demonstrates Peter Cutts’s hugely enjoyable and talented storytelling. With some editing, Hamlet’s Fool could become a concise but sparkling gem of theatre.
Hamlet’s Fool is playing at the Cockpit Theatre until 11 May. For more information and tickets, see the Cockpit Theatre website