Picture credit: Johan Persson
Artillery Row On Theatre

I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates

A new production of Hamlet takes one too many leaves out of Morrissey’s playbook

When you imagine Hamlet, who do you picture? A tortured young Renaissance Man, or a lazy, indecisive bastard? The type of student that’s taken far too long to finish his degree, quotes Nietzsche ostentatiously, and only listens to The Smiths?

It is the latter Hamlet (George Fouracres) who walked on stage at the new Globe production. Complete with doc martins, a jazzy shirt, and one dangly earring, he looks disconcertingly like every heterosexual women’s worst university boyfriend. But, rather than leaning over to tell the audience about this “really cool band you’ve probably heard of called Radiohead”, he proceeds, for over three hours, to play everyone’s favourite grumpy overgrown son.

Staging Hamlet is difficult task. Not simply due to the length of the play and its inevitable difficulties (a ghost? an arras? a play-within-a-play?), but because of its undeniable cultural heft. How can any young actor play Hamlet without thinking of Richard Burbage, Henry Irving, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, David Tennant, and Ian McKellen? And how can any theatre stage the play without thinking of Kozinstev’s famously bleak 60s film, or Gregory Doran’s 2008 RSC production which saw the whole cast under continual observation? With their endless modernisations, gender-swaps, radical sets, and alterations to the text (the 2015 Benedict Cumberbatch version famously opened with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy), every single Hamlet is a continual attempt to make Shakespeare new.

But it would take a strong audience member not to feel sick at heart at some of the production’s follies

And so, it is no surprise — despite the shock-factor the director Sean Holmes was probably aiming for — when this latest staging opens with Ophelia singing Morrissey’s famous heart-breaking “I know it’s over”. It, initially, works very well: a mournful, moping ballad about loneliness and despair — what could be better for Hamlet?

The modernising impulse continues: Claudius (Irfan Shamji) and Gertrude (Polly Frame) sing “Moonglow” whenever they parade their rank, sweaty, corrupt love across the stage. In the scene prior to The Murder of Gonzago, it is not the battle between Pyrrhus and Priam that the players recite, but the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet — all the better not to confuse the audience with. And, in the gravedigger scene, the gravedigger and the priest use skulls and bones as percussion in their own musical number.

Some of this infinite jest works quite well: the all-encompassing nature of Hamlet’s antic disposition is aptly indicated by the sheer farce of everything else. From the scrawled lines of the play on the wall to the incessant breaking into song, it seems as if everyone is mad. And the discordance between the candlelit space of the Sam Wannamaker theatre and the harsh strip lights that appear towards the end of the play is undoubtedly unsettling; something is disjoint and out of frame.

But it would take a strong audience member not to feel sick at heart at some of the production’s follies. Whilst Polonius (John Lightbody) is played with admirable seriousness — for once, his injunction of “to thine own self be true” is not wrapped up in the other comic aspects of his speech — Laertes (Nadi Kemp-Sayf) is no convincing foil to Hamlet. His admonitions to Ophelia (Rachel Hannah Clarke) feel thrown-away and discarded. And, in the all-too-famous burial scene, much power is lost: the action of the play reels around a fountain in the middle of the stage which has to act as grave, brook, and focal point. As it turns out, pretty girls don’t make graves — and nor do their brothers get to jump into them.

There must be some benefits to making the Prince of Denmark the insolent king of indie music and basement university DJ sets

Gertrude (Polly Frame) is surely the most convincing actor on the stage: her Gertrude is as febrile, emotional, and powerful as Shakespeare’s text allows her to be. Holmes is admirably bold in his decision to stage her drinking the poison — there is every possibility that it is a marked choice.

In the case of Ophelia, it is clear some girls are unluckier than others. Modern productions are always keen to distance themselves from the aestheticization of her madness as seen in John Everett Millais or John William Waterhouse’s paintings. This is, in general, a good thing: it is far harder to be shocked or horrified by Ophelia’s descent if the audience’s only thought is to how pretty she looks whilst off her rocker. But it does not quite work in this production: Ophelia is dishevelled, but the elliptical confusion of her songs has been replaced with those more easily understandably bawdy. In the place of flowers, she gives Claudius, Laertes, and Gertrude her jewellery, and her “goodnight sweet ladies” lacks some of its tragic power.

Perhaps the best part of the adaptation is the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia — a relationship so often subsumed by puns on country matters and sweet nothings. Fouracres plays his part of loud, loutish lover with such convincing rage and misogyny that the “get thee to a nunnery” scene is elevated beyond the set-piece it often risks becoming. Well, there must be some benefits to making the Prince of Denmark the insolent king of indie music and basement university DJ sets.

But, as the play ended — after two intervals and without even including the final Fortinbras speech — with the cast singing, yet again, “oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head”, the only thought left in my head was: heaven and earth know, Horatio, I’m miserable now.

Hamlet is at The Globe until 9 April 2022. 

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