Hamlet Hammersmith Riverside Studios photocredit Adam Trigg

Denmark’s a prison? Totes bruv’

Hamlet – Hammersmith Riverside Studios, until 22 June (Tickets)

The latest adaptation from Hiraeth Artistic Productions – following reworkings of classics like Titus Andronicus and Blood Wedding – has a somewhat inauspicious opening scene. We see Hamlet arriving to prison and for a while it seems we are set to watch his transfer in real time; paperwork is laboriously filled out, jewellery relinquished and, somewhat gratuitously, a stripsearch is implemented.

It is all very stripped back, natural, pretty much inaudible and what could be discerned wasn’t any Hamlet that this reviewer had ever heard; it was more like stumbling into a mumblecore adaptation of Scum than Shakespeare most famous tragedy. However from this worrisome start the first half cracks along under Zoe Ford’s pacey direction and carefully planned staging, making innovative use of a flexible set to allow prison’s claustrophobic atmosphere sufficient room to breathe.

Last year the CASA Latin American festival brought the Bolivian Hamlet de los Andes to the Barbican Pit. It was a production that sparked with wit and invention and, following Ostermeier’s version in 2012, demonstrated entirely new interpretations on Hamlet’s themes in a manner that breathed fresh life into the text.

Hamlet Boxing - Hammersmith Riverside Studios photocredit Adam TriggSo the fact that Hiraeth have cut 50 minutes from the running time shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a terrible idea. It can be seen as heresy to cut Shakespeare but one must remember that the text itself is just one element of a production; it must battle against the demands of director, designer and actor. It also recognises that a play should be accessible to its target audience and that if you are going to aim it at schools (which surely is the market for this version) then it is not unreasonable to think that those who are only there because it is a GCSE core subject may see being subjected to three hours of theatre as a cruel and unusual punishment.

The idea of setting it in a prison did make this reviewer wince. The concern about taking on such a high concept approach is that whether the play can be made to work without requiring serious stylistic contortions for plotting to make sense.

Part of the production does fall prey to this problem – for instance the Polonius/Ophelia/Hamlet portion could not be saved and character motivation was inevitability incoherent throughout. Do we really believe that Polonius, no matter how scheming, would ask his daughter to meet a dangerous criminal alone in a prison? Would Ophelia, seemingly a trained prison counsellor, be so affected by Hamlet’s actions that she would commit suicide? These are the kind of problems that must be countered by the director when developing such a strong framing device for the plot.

However other elements of the production work extremely well. There are some innovative directorial ideas – including a very good staging of the ghost appearing to Hamlet, which used light and dark to impressive effect in creating a startling appearance of the apparition. The fight scenes, including the boxing match that replaces the fencing in the final scene, were superbly choreographed and gave off the genuine impression that people were getting seriously hurt.

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