The events of Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet take the rather novel form of being played out over the course of Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding night in Kelly Hunter’s new adaptation. In place of the perhaps more typical consummation, the newlyweds’ nuptial celebrations consist mostly of dying in a rather dramatic grave-side quadruple murder-suicide over the dead body of young Ophelia, whilst a rather creepy Gravedigger outstays his welcome to mutter prose in the corner.
The effect of condensing all the drama of a usually three-to-four-long hour play into a 90-minute, black box studio production is one characterised by overwhelming exhaustion. The pints of fake blood in abundance, relentlessly intense physical acting, and the jarringly fast pace all get a bit too much as the performance goes on. It would be better, perhaps, to store up some of the fiery, potent energy that is presented from the off by the six-person cast, ready to unleash at the most pivotal moments of the play, rather than to persist with the frenzied, almost histrionic whirlwind of drama the audience quickly develops lethargy towards.
Whilst David Fielder’s arresting multi-role performance as Polonius and the Gravedigger, and Finlay Cormack as Laertes both show promise for a strong play, the acting by Francesca Zoutewelle and Mark Arends as Ophelia and Hamlet respectively, is just too intense. This isn’t helped by decisions on which parts to cut from the script meaning that some of the more humorous, sassy lines are eschewed in favour of dependably morose and ‘haunted’ characters. This seems to be a recurring theme; much of the double entendre and innuendo Shakespeare and his works are so famous for is lost, and in its place are scenes that can only be described as strange and superfluous – Hamlet’s father, for example, does not take to the stage in any corporeal form, but instead ‘possesses’ Hamlet in some scenes that are at times rather awkward to watch.
One of the innovative highlights of this adaptation is the combining of music with the madness. Hamlet’s decline is at times played out (literally) through ukulele song, and Ophelia’s songs take on a haunting new quality when joined by the vocals of the people who contributed to her death.
The generic set is limited in terms of adventurousness, and props lack much worthy of mention – aside from the unusual artistic decision to have Yorick’s skull as not a human but an animal skull, which seems rather inexplicably bizarre but, I suppose, why not have an animal as the “king’s jester” whose lips Hamlet has “oft” kissed? It certainly doesn’t prescribe to the commonplace image of Hamlet soliloquising whilst holding a human skull.
Though Hunter did well to shrink the play down into such a short running time, and the play does just about work without Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s exile and other familiar elements, there is so much anger and angst throughout the piece that it is at times quite an ordeal to watch.
Hamlet is playing Trafalgar Studios until 31st December.
Photo: Robert Workman