Riverside Studios, London
William Shakespeare's Hamlet
Directed by Zoe Ford
There has long been debate over who wrote Shakespeare’s works. Bacon, Marlowe or the Bard himself? One thing’s for sure. They are all spinning in their graves tonight at what Zoe Ford has done to Hamlet.
With a slimmed down cast, Denmark’s Elsinore is translated to HM Prison Liverpool, in which Ford has decreed that some of the characters are convicts and others visitors or prison officials. A lengthy mise en scene (that includes Liverpool FC’s recent throwing away of the Premiership at Crystal Palace in the background, as well as Hamlet enduring a full body search) is a quirky addition that sets the tone for a maelstrom of meddling that does the learned Ms Ford no credit. This is a dumbed down Hamlet that strips the play not only of much of its verse, but also of several of its famous quotes and moments. Whilst Fortinbras’ omission from the text is understandable (and common), the players' arrival at Court is curiously transformed into a group therapy session, whilst other memorable text excisions include “neither a borrower nor a lender be” along with the whole of the dialogue between Hamlet and the Ghost in Gertrude’s closet. And Yorick doesn’t get a look in at all. (Actually that is a real shame, because some of Shakespeare’s finest humour occurs between the Gravediggers and Hamlet/Horatio. Ford’s pseudo-witty attempts elsewhere in the play at modern colloquial banter do not come close to the original and this scene’s butchery is a cut too far.)
There is a liberal use of the f-word throughout and a schoolgirl emphasis on the assonant fun to be had with “country matters” during the play-within-a-play scene, with the overall effect being a cheapening of the whole. One suspects that Ford, whose day job is as a Text Assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe, is driven by a worthy motive of seeking to make Shakespeare accessible to a wider audience. ‘Tis a noble cause for sure, but all she achieves here is reducing much of the prose to a lowest common denominator. A-level or GCSE students should avoid this production lest they quote Ford’s interpretation of the play, as set in a Scouse jail, on an examined script.
So, why three stars, when Ford’s edited text merits far less? Amongst her having made Shakespeare sensational (and there’s a quote waiting to be taken out of context if ever there was one), she has created some perceptive moments. Ophelia’s mad scene is poignant, (good work from Jessica White) Gertrude’s pain at Hamlet’s apparently insane interaction with the Ghost in her closet is a rare episode of deep emotional pain and the maleovelant and downright nasty duplicity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is shown in clear relief. Also, as is often the case with stage Hamlet’s, Adam Lawrence’s performance is excellent and a huge physical effort, though around him there is mediocrity as Joyce Greenaway’s Gertrude is often mumbled and Anthony Kernan’s Polonius disappoints.
Above all, this is a Hamlet that should be seen as a curiosity. If you are a newcomer to the play then sadly it will deny you much of the nuanced beauty of the finely crafted original. But if you know the play well, then go and enjoy the fun. It’s a corner-cutting novelty for sure, but at least at just over two hours including interval, it won’t leave you bored.
Runs until 22nd June 2014