David Bobee’s Russian Hamlet is, among other things, a strong argument for age-appropriate casting. While in Britain we like our Princes of Denmark to be ‘accomplished’ actors (read ’30 and above’), this man in black is defiantly juvenile, careering round the stage with adolescent abandon in a pair of skinny jeans and a trendy haircut. It’s a choice that helps some of the play’s questions click into place: why does he procrastinate? Is he mad, or just pretending? Does he have to be so, you know, moody? Ah, yes – he’s a teenager. It might also answer a question more specific to this production: why does he wear a Batman costume?
Bobee says his staging has a ‘cinematographic aesthetic’. I’d go more with graphic novel. Aside from the superhero cape in one scene, the strong monochrome images, scraps of text onstage and stylised violence are pure Gotham City – emphasis on the ‘goth’. The set, also designed by Bobee, is Cheek by Jowl minimalism meets grisly sex dungeon; a sinisterly sanitised space of black tiles and metallic surfaces, wipe-clean in preparation for carnal, bloody and unnatural acts. When the dreadlocked gravedigger starts pulling out the bodies from drawers in the wall, we realise the whole rotten court is held in a morgue.
The production is full of surprises like this – scenes are occasionally divided by a plastic curtain, but Polonius is shot with a cap gun directly into the audience. Ophelia must always drown, but who floods the entire stage? This water remains until the end, rippling and crashing to create glorious images as the cast writhe and leap through it. The visceral force of the visuals is raised by an eclectic soundtrack from droning electro to Coldplay, and the stark aesthetic is occasionally thrown into relief by more traditional elements: a smattering of classical music and an Elizabethan costumed troupe of actors for the play-within-the-play.
There are some perplexing aspects – I never understood why Ophelia and Laertes occasionally speak English together, and the distancing trick of having each character announce themselves by carrying the letters of their name onstage doesn’t come off when we only get the surtitled translation at the end of the scene.
But this is bold stuff for a play that often feels the weight of its canonical seriousness, and in dispensing with subtlety Bobee loses very little of Hamlet‘s depth. The ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy gains concrete urgency as the prince holds a knife to his throat, and his revulsion at the perceived incest of Gertrude and Claudius becomes fairly understandable when he’s practically forced to watch her give him a lap dance.
For such a theatrical, in some ways heavy-handed slant on Shakespeare, this has a real emotional core – a distressing poignancy that’s heightened by Hamlet’s youth amidst the carnage. In fact, as the cast lay themselves down to die after a slow-motion finale, it’s easy to forget we’ve missed out on all of Shakespeare’s language. Perhaps that’s this production’s great strength; the play’s still the thing, but without the pressure of speaking its well-worn lines the company’s free to dance around the text, dragging it down and lifting it up.
Hamlet played at Les Gémeaux in Paris. For more shows at Les Gémeaux see the website.