Review by Sam Waite
The question, we are told, is whether to be or not to be. With the works of Shakespeare, and modern interpretations of these texts held so sacred to so many, the question to be asked may differ. To produce, or not to produce? A company ought to ask themselves – put more bluntly, can they bring something new to the age-old tales by altering the time and place we are transported to? Or are they eager to explore new ideas and falling back on the classics to try them out?
Known for adding their own contemporary leanings to classic material, the Lazarus Theatre company have pulled together a diverse ensemble for their new production of Hamlet. The text is pure Shakespeare, with little if anything changed of the dialogue itself, though truncated to fit into a swift 95-or-so minutes. The story beats we know from countless productions and numerous adaptations are intact – if you’ve seen The Lion King, you have a grasp on the titular Prince of Denmark’s murderous uncle and visitation by his father’s spirit.
Where this version immediately differs is in the framing device of what appears to be a support group. The ensemble cast sit in a circle, handing a microphone around as each introduces themselves, their role, and a line from the text that evokes their character. Hamlet himself goes last, and the implication is that the cast proceed to play out a story as he tells it – however the framing device is confusing, and I was never certain what it was supposed to either be or represent. Likewise, The Voice, performed offstage by Micha Colombo, which at times is Hamlet’s mother but seems to also be the leader or tutor of the gathered circle. Without any real clarity, these new touches serve only to confuse and disengage viewers from an often very good performance.
The cast are largely strong, made up of young performers of differing backgrounds. Michael Hawkey makes an impressive professional debut in the title role, his lad-ishness slipping rapidly and believably into madness through the second half. Raw and unapologetically deranged, his strength of emotion helps those of us less familiar with Shakespeare’s work to keep up with the plot and emotional beats where we may lose track of the language. Also adept in slowly building an emotionally fractured state before our eyes is Lexine Lee’s Ophelia, who brings to the forefront a sense of genuine fear as Hamlet’s disposition worsens and a keenly felt sombreness to her eventual demise.
The lighting design, by Stuart Glover, alternates between fully effective and frustratingly obtrusive. The use of darkness and shrouding performers in shadow is sometimes used to brilliant effect and evokes the night-time setting of certain scenes perfectly. Unfortunately, there are also moments where it becomes difficult to see the faces of actors where they are trying to convey emotion and, at least once, the blocking requires Hamlet to shine a torch in his own face to fully show his reaction – I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a directorial choice or born of necessity as his reaction is so central to the moment.
Likewise, the choices of director-adaptor Ricky Dukes vary from pitch-perfect and assured to confusing at times. His ensemble-based approach to Hamlet’s father appearing as a spectre is inspired and aided beautifully by Jovana Backovic’s sound design. Other choices prove less impactful, such as when actors find themselves across the stage from their scene partner, gesturing emphatically when emotion may be better presented by closer proximity and a stronger range of motion. At one point, a large fan is used to conjure a strong wind, but despite it elevating the scene by deepening the setting, it meant that the dialogue between actors became difficult to comprehend, and the shouting it encouraged dulled the subtler emotions.
A choice which failed to resonate with me was the placing of the famous “To be or not…” monologue back within the circle – the support group of sorts, which I struggled to comprehend, and which felt as if it was excluding those of us unaware of the meaning from these parts of the work. If I don’t know what’s going on, how can I be invested in these classic words?
It's a shame that this device pulled me out of the story when it was used, because outside of this there was a great deal that I found deeply satisfying. The dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio came across here as boyish banter and helped to immediately shift the piece into a modern setting while keeping the relationships and plot beats intact. Likewise, his would-be flirtations with Ophelia and the damage this eventually causes to both parties here sees initially to be almost a schoolboy crush, allowing the darkness of this plotline to trickle in and be all the more devastating in its sinister conclusion.
Strongly acted and bursting with new, exciting ideas, this new Hamlet has moments of utter brilliance which are unfortunately at odds with others which dull the sharpness a new setting brings to the work. Many of the ideas at play are good, but their execution varies too wildly to allow those that have been explored more fully to shine as fully as they ought to.
While this may end up being a divisive production – I observed responses ranging from howling laughter to exasperated sighs at certain modern touches – Shakespeare’s works were always for the common man to enjoy, and it’s refreshing to see an honest attempt to make these plays relevant and accessible for a wider range of patrons. While Hamlet himself may be a Prince, here he is just another youngster struggling in a world he doesn’t feel equipped to take on.
Hamlet plays at Southwark Playhouse until 4th February. Tickets from https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/
Photos by Charles Flint