The last time I saw a production of Hamlet – and for better or for worse I have seen a few – was Dominic Dromgoole’s great production at the Globe. The very nature of that stage, with the lights and sounds of London in the summertime pouring in from the open top, made this first production by new company Stern Alarum all the more unnerving. Set in a genuine Second World War bunker in Dalston, this telling of the Hamlet tale retreats into the darkness like an injured creature, the damage that the characters endure made suddenly tangible and frightening.
Entering the bunker is a disarming and sensory experience: the cold, the damp and the encroaching darkness pull you ever deeper into the tortured psyche of Henry Douthwaite’s Hamlet. Indeed, the way in which he weaves in and out of scenes gives the impression of winding, endless corridors beyond our claustrophobic and stifling space that manifest the maze of his mind, infested by paranoia and a desire for revenge.
The sense of madness in Douthwaite’s excellent portrayal is visceral and threatening; the way in which he launches himself at Angela Ferns’ fragile Ophelia, and the sexual tone of his violence, have a sense of danger and rawness like that of a trapped animal. He scrawls on the damp walls with chalk like someone incarcerated, stating that “Denmark is a prison” – and yet it seems an asylum. The sounds within the bunker take on an otherworldly echo, adding to this sense that we have been abandoned by the outside world, and the lights that represent the old king’s ghost cast shadows on the rest of the characters that make them look haunted and drawn.
Douthwaite is ably supported by a fantastic cast and Ferns in particular is perfect as the tragic Ophelia. There is a pinch of resentment and bitterness within her responses that, despite her sense of fragility, also hint at her own desire for revenge for the wrongs committed against her. The scene between Hamlet and Terry Diab’s Gertrude is also moving, as Hamlet seeks the comfort of his mother in one last embrace before the bodies begin to pile up.
Director Andrew Shepherd masters this haunting interpretation of Hamlet. Both the setting and cast conjure up an atmosphere that expertly captures the dark elements of this play and the goose bumps that one feels upon leaving are certainly not all from the temperature.
Hamlet is playing at the Dalston Bunker until 27 April 2013. For more information and tickets, please see the Stern Alarum website.