Anthony Green’s new production Hamlet Peckham splits Shakespeare’s protagonist into three Hamlets, each played by a different actor. Hamlet one (Sharon Singh) is ‘the problem’, Hamlet two (Max Calandrew), ‘the plan’ and Hamlet three (Izabella Urbanowicz), ‘the solution’. Our trio of Hamlets are each armed, or cursed, with a distinct state of mind, reflecting Hamlet’s journey from grief into madness. Through dividing this classic story into three, with one Hamlet progressing into the next in linear fashion, Green brings us a unique perception of Shakespeare’s play in a modern production that is inclusive of its audience at every opportunity.
As the title suggests, Hamlet Peckham is staged in Peckham, specifically at the popular nightclub venue, the Bussey Building. Michael Leopold’s set design is rustic and minimal, consisting of multi-purpose wooden crates and transparent white curtains. Other than the brief appearance of Gertrude’s (Pia Lanciotti) bed in the second half, the stage remains empty. Olivia Ward’s costume design is equally contemporary and simple: black and white garments for all, with some wearing leather jackets and Hamlet three wearing a gender neutral pair of black leather trousers. Two small nags with the staging, however, are the pillar which blocks various views of the stage depending on where you are sitting, and the sound of music briefly wafting into the auditorium from another area of the building, diluting the atmosphere during one of Hamlet’s soliloquies.
With two of Green’s three Hamlets being played by female cast members, Hamlet one and three are referred to as ‘her’ and ‘princess’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘prince’, in moments which stick out from the text like a pain-free, forward-thinking thumb. As well as weaving female interpretations into a traditionally male role, Green’s direction adds several modern touches to accompany the four hundred year old script, such as Laertes (Calandrew) kissing a condom before handing it to his sister Ophelia (Diana Gómez) whilst instructing her to keep her affections away from desire in his absence.
The production is incredibly inclusive, for better or for worse. Members of the cast thank us for coming as we arrive, and hover around to make small talk once we’ve sat. As we take our seats again after the interval, a volunteer is called upon from the audience to walk onto the stage and deliver a couple of token lines when given a cue. When the moment comes and the chosen volunteer walks onto the stage, informing Horatio (Daniel Rusteau) about his letters, she receives a hearty round of applause from the audience. Despite feeling a little interruptive, this episode offers some light relief during the midst of the heavy tragedy. Less successful, however, is the decision for Hamlet’s famous ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy to be offered to the audience in call-and-response like fashion. Here, Hamlet two (Calandrew) says ‘To be’, whilst gesturing to an audience member to deliver the rest, but when silence and nervous laughter ensue, Calandrew has to mime his request for participation to another audience member, who dutifully relieves him after a short, agonising pause. This flop speaks for the fact that despite the line being one of the most famous in English literature, the gamble taken in offering it to the audience detracts from the power and purpose of the deliverance, and ultimately derails Hamlet’s feverish train of thought.
Each actor playing Hamlet explores different sides to the prince. Singh’s Hamlet, ‘the problem’, is sulky. Her wide, horrified eyes and petulant, trembling lip betray her emotions from her opening line. Calandrew’s Hamlet has formulated ‘the plan’ and is quite mad; swinging between paranoid ponderings to ecstatic, manic episodes, before dissolving into a series of expressive, angry outbursts. Calandrew makes his secondary character, Laertes, somewhat two dimensional perhaps to focus energies on his Hamlet. Finally we meet Urbanowicz’s Hamlet, who is initially hard to transition to whilst we’re fully invested in Calandrew’s interpretation, but who eventually owns the role and brandishes the character with all the poised resolve expected from ‘the solution’. She unravels as a strong, wild-eyed, feminine but tomboyish figure. Also particularly good were Gil Sutherland in his authentic portrayal of the stately Polonius, and Eva Savage in her energy to interact with the audience, as well as in her wit on stage. Pete Collis’s diction was slightly garbled in his role as the Ghost, and some of his lines seemed rushed, however he was strong in his role as King Claudius and holds something Branagh-esque about him on stage.
Green’s production works hard to pull us into the story full of ‘accidental murders and casual slaughters’, whilst exposing three sharply defined angles to the troubled prince.
Hamlet Peckham is playing the Bussey Building until 27 February 2016. For more information and tickets, see www.clfartcafe.org