Psychodrama

Psychodrama by Sleepwalk Collective & Christopher Brett Bailey – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Not many theatre pieces begin with the brutal assassination of the Roadrunner (from a speeding car, with a baseball bat), nor do they include a home invasion resulting in the deaths and dismemberment of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (with a chainsaw). But not many performers have the hallucinatory genius of Christopher Brett Bailey and Sleepwalk Collective, and still fewer have the nerve to stage such an intense, terrifying and often hilarious performance. Playing only a few nights at Battersea Arts Centre as part of a tour, Psychodrama stands out in a big way and those lucky enough to catch it will wonder, in years to come, whether it can really have happened.

The audience wears headphones throughout the show, and the two performers – Bailey and iara Solana Arana – speak into microphones, addressing us as though we are a watching tv audience. Their world is television – a pre-internet version with cathode ray tubes and cartoons, where the separation between violence and entertainment becomes terminally blurred. In a series of linked sketches they delve deep into very dark and strange places, like excerpts from the world of David Lynch that have broken loose. Bailey has Eraserhead hair, while Solano is a dive bar Marie Antoinette. Announcing their intention to take up residence inside our heads, they evoke a series of increasingly disturbing scenarios, performed with cool levels turned to maximum. As well as cartoon assassinations (“Sometimes we kill for money, sometimes we kill for pleasure, sometimes we kill to eat”), the evening encompasses a particularly alarming episode with a psychotic Popeye, a staggeringly over-the-top diner sex scene, and a jukebox ballad that is Lynch through and through. Meanwhile a woman interrogates them, apparently in subtitled Russian, about their states of mind.

These scenes, often jaw dropping, risk being as cartoonish as the scenarios they explore, but they are a great deal more. The use of headphones allows a remarkable soundscape to infiltrate the minds of the audience, immersing them deeply in a world of disquiet. Bailey and Sammy Metcalfe, who designed the sound together, achieve something remarkable by conjuring a late-night, nightmare world that is both alluring and alarming, like a therapy session gone wrong. The queasy, late night atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of Chris Morris’ radio series, Blue Jam, the highest of accolades for weirdness.

Above all, the writing from Bailey, Solano and Metcalfe is remarkable, a storm of twisted cultural confusion, Americana gone very wrong. The audience watches in open mouthed glee as he tramples all over sensibilities and trigger warnings to present the things we really do not want to see, all at once. The density of the script could be too much, but the performers use neat theatrical devices – tiny effects boxes, a miniature loudhailer, unexpected inflatables – to punctuate their narratives, like cartoon exclamations. Psychodrama is an outlier: with its analogue pop culture obsessions it references a previous generation, but is all the more welcome for being made right now. Bailey and Solano effortlessly deliver the unhinged, road trip strangeness that shows such as Is God Is have recently been desperate to achieve. They seriously question the role of violence, particularly against women, in our culture without any hint of preaching. And they remind us of how stunning, unexpected the best theatre can be – rising fully formed from the minds of some seriously twisted geniuses.

Straight Line Crazy

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Straight Line Crazy by David Hare – Bridge Theatre, London

David Hare’s new play is a history lesson. New York city planner Robert Moses shaped the modern city by supplying it with expressways and parkways, new roads that accelerated the era of the car and drove their way through the properties of the elite and the poor alike. Straight Line Crazy is set at two key points in Moses career as the man no politician dared say no to. In 1926 he established his reputation by building two parkways to Long Island, opening the backyards of New York’s millionaire families to ordinary people, or at least those with a car. In 1955 he met his match, defeated by a coalition of the organised middle class over plans to build an expressway through Washington Square Park. We see the arrogance and unshakeable self-belief that both made him and finished him. He claimed to serve the people, but on the basis that he knew what was best. In the 1920s, the car seemed to be the future. By the 1950s it had become clear that traffic was destroying the places it was supposed to serve.

The strengths of Nicholas Hytner’s production lie in its excellent case. Ralph Fiennes, as Moses, approaches the part like Olivier – finding the right stance. He throws his shoulders back and his chest out to thicken his profile, and prowls the stage as coiled and tense as the braces that hold up his enormous 1920s trousers. Fiennes is in his element as man whose tragic flaw, his inability to understand or respect anyone else, will clearly be his downfall. Hare’s script has him smouldering most of the time, but when he explodes Fiennes is in his element. His favourite politician, man of the people New York Governor Al Smith, is excellently played by Danny Webb as a twinkly, mischievous character whom you cross at your peril. Samuel Barnett and Siobhán Cullen play Moses’ lieutenants, who grow old and disillusioned as the times catch up with Moses and pass him by.

Helen Schlesinger gives perfect impersonation of Greenwich Village campaigner Jane Jacobs, but it is here that the play’s problems become evident. Firstly, Hare only seems interested in Moses. While the play is about him, the writing fails to activate the characters around him, with the exception of Al Smith. Jacobs signs off at the end of the evening by explaining that she later moved to Toronto, but there is no mention of the rather more important fact that she became the greatest and most influential urban thinker of her day, whose work still shapes the way planners think about cities. This is more than an oversight – it diminishes one of the 20th century’s most important figures, making her serve the story of Moses, which is particularly ironic given his apparent disregard for the opinions of ‘housewives’. Other characters struggle for significance. Attempts to provide Barnett and Cullen with storylines feel like token efforts, and they spend much of their time standing around on Bob Crowley’s cavernous architect’s office set, listening as Fiennes tells us what he thinks.

If the point of the play is Moses, Hare also fails to make it clear why. There is no sense of the current relevance of this story, or why he has chosen to stage it now. The events of Moses’ life are relatively well known, and the play resembles a history lesson that ends in 1955, repeating a story as it happened, without analysis of how it changed our 21st century world. There is a hint at the end of the play of a different, more interesting story as Jacobs is given lines claiming Greenwich Village was destroyed by gentrification instead of the expressway – a theme that suddenly brings the evening into brief focus. Ultimately, despite the undeniable quality of the performers, this is a safe and even somewhat dull evening, which does not challenge or threaten the audience, and leaves them smugly confirmed in the beliefs that held when they took their seats.

Playing Latinx

Playing Latinx by Guido Garcia Lueches – Camden People’s Theatre, London

Guido Garcia Lueches is not Mexican. Nor is he Peruvian. Nor Puerto Rican. Nor the emotional Latinx (pronounced Latinks) type people expect. This does not stop him playing all those parts as an actor, in the guise of either fighter, lover or comic relief. Guido’s one-man show tackles the experience of the Latinx performer in the UK, where these stereotypes cover people from “one and a half continents”. Fellow actors and casting directors can be anything from clumsy to rude, and rarely see Latinx actors as people but as a distinct, controllable type. “I was white before I came here”, says Guido, in typically understated but piercing aside.

Although the show deals with some sobering themes about our not-so-post-colonial attitudes, it does so with enormous humour and grace. Guido is a superbly engaging performer, who has the audience at his mercy from the start. Humour is his medium, and he loves to work with the audience. Ostensibly delivering a seminar in how to be a stereotypical Latinx in a ludicrous accent, he is constantly interrupted by calls from his agent to attend auditions, for sexy pool cleaners, gang members, revolutionaries, and samba dancers. Each time, the agent is played by an audience member who has to occupy the casting chair on stage before the show can continue. By the end, half the audience has been on stage, while the other half has become involved in other ways – and everyone seems to be enjoying it hugely.

Playing Latinx makes neat use of light touch stage techniques such as these, but it is Guido who makes it all work. He is the kind of performer you are happy to trust because his motives are clear. He has written a piece of smart, funny and reflective entertainment that will send you home delighted with what you’ve discovered. Whether he ever gets to play “Ricardo Tres”, as he puts it, is another matter but Guido deserves big audiences for a standout piece of fringe theatre.

After The End

Photo © The Other Richard

Written for Plays International

After The End by Dennis Kelly – Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

Dennis Kelly’s 2005 play, After The End, is set inside a nuclear fallout shelter, so it is not surprising that it deals with situations beyond the boundaries of what passes for normality. It has a cast of just two: Mark and Louise, who are colleagues and friends… sort of. Mark has apparently rescued Louise from a nuclear blast.  “Terrorists. Probably.” he says, “Suitcase nuke”. There is no information on what might have happened to everyone else, although Mark says he saw charred bodies, and there is no signal on the radio. Fortunately, he bought a flat with fallout shelter under the garden, built in the 1980s – not because of the shelter, although everyone at work laughed at him for it, but… well… lucky he did, isn’t it?

Kelly builds, with some glee, an atmosphere of intense awkwardness between the two, who find themselves living together in a confined space for the two weeks that, according to Mark, it will take for the radioactive dust outside to settle. It is all too easy to believe that if the apocalypse happened, it would be distressingly ordinary in its mechanics. People would behave in exactly the way we would expect, only more so. Fear and boredom would go in tandem, and a complete lack of any agency would drive everyone insane. Inevitably, we would not get to choose who we faced the future with.

After The End is about the idea of a catastrophe that renders everything else irrelevant, and leaves us with little more than ourselves to fall back on. However, it is also about more than this. For a reviewer the plot is mostly off-limits, as it hinges around a big twist that changes our perceptions of what we are watching. It is safe to say, though, that Kelly is writing about other types of conflict than just nuclear war. We wait in fear for a war that is already taking place, without our noticing. The power that men exercise over women is the territory of daily violence and oppression, and this is what plays out in Mark’s bunker.

Lyndsey Turner’s production is expertly crafted. As tensions rise, Mark and Louise use the confined space differently, spreading to press one another against the concrete walls, and warily covering one another’s sightlines. Designer Peter McKintosh has letter-boxed a shelter space into the Theatre Royal’s proscenium arch, like a section through a subterranean world. It is a thoroughly claustrophobic setting. The two performers – Amaka Okafor as Louise and Nick Blood as Mark – are excellent. Blood is entirely convincing in his neediness, very much the creepily socially awkward colleague, resentful of the apparently easy friendships and connections enjoyed by others. Okafor is the opposite – a confident, competent woman under pressure from people who want things from her. The friendship between the two is unhealthy. Mark is obsessed with her, too immature to express himself or relate as an equal. He seems amiable but, as we soon see, is capable of exploiting his power over Louise, and maybe of much more.

Although they are played very well, After The End falls short through these two characters. Mark is too much of a cliché to be entirely believable: a man whose genuine obsession is having Louise to himself, so they can play Dungeons and Dragons. Louise is defined by her reactions to the situation she finds herself in, and it is not until the play’s final scene that we see a fuller version of her, and understand a little more about who she is and what she wants.

Okafor’s performance is compelling, and her explosion when finally able to do as she chooses is visceral. However, the final note of rapprochement between the two feels odd in light of what has gone before. It is very difficult to have any sympathy for Mark, who emerges as an unpleasant character on every level, from the petty to the fundamental. His behaviour is, from any perspective, unforgivable. After The End is an intriguing, but not entirely successful play. Turner’s revival is high quality and Stratford East should be commended for programming challenging work, giving us a chance to look again at the new writing of our recent past.

The Merchant of Venice

Photo © Tristram Kenton

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Written for Plays International

‘The Merchant of Venice’ is seen as a problematic play but, increasingly, it seems that the problems are with us, as much as they are with Shakespeare. We only have to look back a couple of decades to see Shylock portrayed as an ‘other’, a character who, if not quite the author of his own problems, certainly makes life difficult for himself. In her first production for the Globe, director Abigail Graham makes these interpretations seem like something from the dark ages. She reclaims the play, triumphantly, with a production that reveals a powerful expose of racism that has been there all along, but that as a society we did not see.

Against a silvered backdrop, an indoor Venice is revealed, filling the jewel box Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and its disconcertingly dark corners. Graham cuts the comic scenes involving the Gobbos, but Lancelot survives – wheedling his way into the employment of Bassanio at a testosterone-fuelled party of young, white, traders in masks – and the older Antonio. The lads force him to drink a shot every time he says the word ‘Jew’, leaving us in no doubt about the nature of the society they represent. The cast give unnervingly credible performances as a privileged cabal who protect their own interests by viciously demeaning those who do not belong. Michael Gough’s excellent Antonio is perhaps an outsider, working hard to stay on the inside. His relationship with Bassanio, played by Michael Manus as a self-centred, calculating chancer, is physically close and makes him vulnerable. His reaction is to outdo everyone in his anti-semitism, and is shocking to see an older man deploying his experience to be the cynical and vicious of all.

The contrast with Adrian Schiller’s superb Shylock is heart-breaking. This money lender is a low-key businessman in an old-fashioned suit, windcheater and yarmulke. He is softly spoken, as though long experience has taught him it does not pay to stand out. When Antonio asks him for a loan, while repeatedly expressing his scorn and threatening to spit on him, Shylock adds the numbers up in a pocket book with a trembling hand. He clearly wants to be left alone, a luxury not afforded to a Jew in Venice. The hatred on display is a powerful illustration of how racism works in practice, ringing through the centuries like an alarm bell.

Shylock’s subsequent actions are entirely defined by his position in society, and his treatment by people who are open in their contempt for him, and his right to be treated like a fellow human. Schiller provides many stand-out moments. His tears when told that his daughter Jessica’s has not only eloped with his goods, but has pawned a ring given to him by Leah, who we assume to be his dead wife, are truly moving. He arrives in court for his pound of Antonio’s flesh, carrying a folding table and chair and a tupperware box, like a pensioner out for a picnic. He is very much on his own, but determined to take a rare chance to stand up to a society that victimises and bullies him. His hand shakes so violently as he holds the knife to Antonio’s chest that it is clear he cannot go through with it. 

The toughest parts to play and direct in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ are Portia and Jessica. Sophie Melville plays the former as a sparkling, brittle performer, toughened to snapping point by her social position. Her father’s cruel bequest, of a husband to be chosen by lottery, leaves her powerless. The suitor scenes are staged as a gameshow, with Portia wheeled out to be displayed as the prize, in a nod to Rupert Goold’s 2011 Las Vegas-set RSC production. Open racism is part of the equation at Belmont too, seen in Portia’s horrified reaction to the Prince of Morocco. Yet, when she finds herself in a position of influence in court, she seizes her chance to join the boys club, turning on Shylock with relish, to the delight of Antonio, Bassanio and their cronies, a victim turned abuser. She receives her come-uppance when, at the conclusion of the scene, the men slam the door in her face, her usefulness at an end.

Jessica is, if anything, an even more difficult part. There is little to like about Shylock’s daughter, who betrays him completely. She disappears within the play, apparently content to live with Lorenzo on the share of her father’s wealth extracted through the corrupt Venice courts. Graham, taking a cue from Jessica’s single, desolate line “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” tops and tails the production with her singing – “Today’s gonna be a good day” at the start, a Hebrew lament at the end – which imply she too has been used and deceived. Eleanor Wyld’s performance is compelling and charismatic, greatly helping to position her as a rounded character.

Other cast members to make an impression are Raymond Anum as a champagne-swigging Gratiano, Daniel Bowerbank as an opportunistic Lorenzo and Morocco, and Tripti Tripuraneni’s ambiguous Nerissa. The ensemble performs as a unit, connected by Abigail Graham’s fearless vision of the play. The final image of Shylock, walking away to an uncertain future clutching his briefcase, makes a natural connection to images from many eras of persecuted people, fleeing with what they can carry. Graham’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ sets a newstandard for future productions, and showcases the talents of the under-rated Adrian Schiller in a definitive performance. It is the highlight of the Globe Theatre’s winter season.

When We Dead Awaken

Photo: Coronet Theatre

When We Dead Awaken by Henrik Ibsen – The Coronet Theatre, London

Written for Plays International

Jonathan Kent opened his tenure as Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre with a production of Henrik Ibsen’s final play, ‘When We Dead Awaken’. When, years later, he was asked for his advice to young directors he supposedly said “Don’t start with ‘When We Dead Awaken’”. Kent’s production was well-received and his time at the Almeida a triumph, but the play is famously difficult. If anyone can get to grips with its strange combination of symbolism and despair, it is surely The Norwegian Ibsen Company. Previously seen at the Coronet Theatre with strong versions of ‘Little Eyolf’ and ‘The Lady from the Sea’, they return with a production directed by Kjetil Bang-Hansen. If the play remains difficult to love, it is hard to imagine a more powerful, well-produced account of its strengths and weaknesses.

The set, designed by Mayou Trikerioti, extends the abandoned 19th century music hall atmosphere of the Coronet onto the stage itself. Peeling paintwork on the balconies give way to a derelict stage, floorboards torn up, dominated by a pile of junk heaped into front of a painted proscenium arch. These are the remnants of an abandoned theatre, where the audience has departed for the last time. It neatly sums up the ruined atmosphere of Ibsen’s final work, which seems to be a complete renunciation of his artistic achievements. It is an astonishing play in many ways, but not all of them are good. Ibsen was apparently dissatisfied with what we now regard as his great works – plays such as ‘Little Eyolf’ and ‘The Master Builder’ that he felt said nothing new. The central character of ‘When We Dead Awaken’ is the aging sculptor Arnold Rubek, his greatest work behind him, also condemned to what he regards as ‘hack work’. His young wife Maia can no longer connect with him and, when he encounters his former model Irene, who posed for his greatest work, he follows her where she leads. His final journey with her to the top of the mountain is heavy with symbolism – Lohengrin, boats that run ashore, the ‘murder’ of children, resurrection, light, darkness, seagulls, swans, and a stream that erupts, startlingly, from the set.  

The cast, who perform mostly in Norwegian with subtitles, with some scenes in English, inhabit the unreal world of the play completely. Øystein Røger, as Rubek, has natural authority which conceals a complete collapse in his confidence or sense of self. He has returned to his Norwegian home town, against his better judgement, to look for meaning in his life. Maia, played by Andrea Bræin Hovig with frustrated energy, has given up hope that her husband will take her, as he promised, to the top of the mountain to see the glories of the whole world. The supposed settings – a country hotel and a mountain retreat – seem like painful fantasies and, when other figures appear, they appear to have been conjured from the troubled minds of Rubek and Maia. First Ulfheim (James Browne), a bear hunter, captivates Maia and takes her away to show her something exciting (apparently his dogs, feeding). He later offers to tie her up with their leashes. Then Rubek recognises Irene von Satow, his muse and saviour/nemesis, played by Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen. She glides into the picture, accompanied by a nun, both real and spectral, and leads Rubek to the top of the mountain, up a path that Maia and Ulfheim find much too dangerous. What happens next is not entirely clear, and Ibsen was apparently unsure how to end the play, but both Rubek and Maia are set free in contrasting ways.

There are a number of problems with ‘When We Dead Awaken’. In abandoning the realism that proved so effective in plays such as ‘Little Eyolf’ when combined with elements of the supernatural, it seems self-indulgent. The dreamlike setting makes it hard to take events seriously but, while it could perhaps be said that Ibsen is mocking his status as a great artist, the play contains little in the way of humour. Rubek, unlike the characters for whom Ibsen is famous, seems a cliché – a tortured, self-absorbed artist who treats others, both Maia and Irene, abominably. Our sympathies for Rubek are rapidly lost as he retreats inside his own self-pity, and it is hard for us to care much about his redemption. Meanwhile, it is disturbing to see how Ibsen, at last writing about what he really felt, had nothing left to say. The darkness that overwhelms him is like an onstage breakdown, distressing to watch and a harsh coda to a life that, more than a century later, seems a triumph.

However, despite the play’s inherent strangeness, the Norwegian Ibsen Company offers a rare and valuable opportunity to see ‘When We Dead Awaken’. The confidence of the performers and the memorable staging, not to mention the alluring sound of Norwegian spoken on stage, make this an evening of high quality theatre for more than just Ibsen completists. The Coronet continues to play an important role in the London theatre scene, hosting European companies who would not otherwise be seen in the UK, and widening our cultural horizons in ways that we should not take for granted. 

Mugabe, My Dad and Me

Photo by Jane Hobson

Mugabe, My Dad and Me by Tonderai Munyevi – Brixton House, London

Tonderai Munyevi is a charming performer. His one man show, which opens the new Brixton House Theatre – home of the relocated Oval House Theatre, and the first in Brixton for a very long time – is a spirited combination of personal and global histories. The two are hard to separate when, as Munyevi was, you are brought up in Zimbabwe and relocate to London to make your life. His experiences include different types of marginalisation, growing up as a gay man and a Zimbabwean immigrant in London. His family story is messy, but the show moving unearths the trauma that led to his father alcoholism, the root of his problems. This is inextricably linked with the fight for independence that led to the end of the apartheid Iain Smith regime in 1981, and the rise of Robert Mugabe as the new leader bringing hope to an oppressed nation. Of course, the Mugabe era did not turn out as anyone hoped, and part of Munyevi’s stated aim is to explain how, far from being a standalone despot, Mugabe was the product of a desperate colonial past.

He succeeds in this only to some extent. As a history lesson, ‘Mugabe, My Father and I’ is sometimes frustratingly lacking. The land disputes that blew up in the 1990s, leading to Mugabe’s transformation into a pariah, are the theme that underlies the show, but are never fully explained. Those without background knowledge may be a little baffled. It is also strange that no reference is made to Mugabe’s infamous homophobia, despite Munyevi’s sexuality being a theme throughout. However, the show is engagingly performed and very well staged. John R. Wilkinson’s direction fills the relatively large Brixton House stage with the help of Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s set of outfits, from military uniforms to Spice Girl dresses, suspended over the performers. Although it is a one-man show, there is also a woman – Mille Chapanda, who plays the Mbira, a haunting Zimbabwean instrument, as well as occasional characters in the show. The Mbira is the name for both the instrument and the story it tells in in music, a different tale for each one of us. This is Tonderai’s tale, and a strong way to open an exciting new theatre space.

A Tale of Two Cities

Photo by Tristram Kenton

A Tale of Two Cities by Lost Dog – The Place, London

There are very few companies who do what Lost Dog does so well – seamlessly combining theatre and contemporary dance, as though this was an obvious way to tell a story. In fact, their work is exceptionally skilled and original, and very easy to get wrong. With ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, they have taken on a complicated and occasionally baffling Dickens tome, which could be a Nicholas Nickleby-style epic in different hands. Naturally, they do not put a foot wrong. Ben Duke directs a larger cast than previous Lost Dog productions, with five dancers juggling multiple roles. His approach owes something to the company’s brilliant Juliet & Romeo – looking back at a well-known story and questioning the assumptions of its main characters. Dickens’ ‘Tale of Two Cities’ is examined by Lucie Manette, who was seven when her mother (of the same name) name whisked her and her father Charles Darnay out of revolutionary Paris, escaping the guillotine. She is making a documentary about what happened, interviewing her reluctant parents and brother on camera.

The camera provides our view of past events in many scenes, filmed out of our sight behind the ruined walls of a Parisian hovel, and projected onto screens. Her parents’ secrets – the sacrifice of their friend Sydney Carton who sends himself to execution in place of Charles, and his love for Lucie, and Charles’ evil aristocratic family – are drawn out through Lucie probing. So is the kidnapping and rape of Mme. Defarge’s sister by said aristocrats. Lucie (an engaging and amusing Nina-Morgane Madelaine) guides the audience through these complex events, but Lost Dog does such a good job of expressing the key moments that we are never in any doubt about what’s happening.

The production thrills in the scenes where the cast go beyond words and burst into movement. The combined forces of Temitope Ajose-Cutting, Valentina Formenti, John Kendall and Hannes Langolf alongside Madelaine, are something to be reckoned with. A slow motion riot scene, cast wrestling grimly with one another, and a ship-board scene on a cross-Channel ship, Formenti and Langolf hanging onto the imagined rigging as they talk, are familiar techniques but rarely performed with such precision. Other scenes – Ajose-Cutting losing her core, physically, as she discovers what really happened to her sister, and Kendall dancing a jig on the end of a hangman’s rope, while a timer counts down the excruciatingly slow 3 minutes it takes him to die, are actively astonishing. The show is both an intellectually rigorous re-examination of a tale taken for granted, and a piece of pure entertainment. Ben Duke continues to be one of the theatre-makers of our time, demonstrating exactly why dance matters.

Hamlet

Photo by Johan Persson

Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

Review for Plays International

Sean Holmes’ production of Hamlet in the Globe’s indoor space opens with a snatch of “Oh mother I can feel the soil falling over my head”, from The Smiths’ song ‘I Know It’s Over’. Then the candles are doused, the theatre plunges into complete darkness, and we are on the walls of Elsinore. This is about as conventional as the production gets. The next scene, rather than introducing Hamlet through his meeting with The Ghost, skips forward in the play and it is several scenes before we return to the castle walls. Every production of Hamlet is an exercise in editing and rearranging competing versions of the play into a version that is not only coherent, but also short enough for the audience to get home afterwards. Usually, the audience barely notices how the effect has been achieved. If they do, the rationale should be clear. Radical re-edits of Shakespeare can work brilliantly. Joe Hill-Gibbins’ 2018 production of Richard II for the Almeida is a recent example of how taking a cleaver to the structure of a play can change all expectations of how it should be performed. However, the intention behind Holmes’ rearrangements is never clear, and the confusion feeds into many aspects of his production.

The set, by Grace Smart, uses the neat device of an ornamental pool in the centre of the stage. This is used in inventive ways: for Hamlet to teeter on its brink, to douse chandeliers by lowering them into the water and, eventually, to contain the dead. One of the evening’s most effective moments comes when the lights suddenly go up to reveal Ciarán O’Brien’s semi-clad, furious Ghost standing in the water. It is hard to imagine a more threatening Ghost, full of rage at his treatment. However, this interpretation unbalances the play a little, especially when he later returns to waterboard his indecisive son. It is hard to escape the feeling that the elder Hamlet may not have been a pleasant man or a good king, and sympathies begin to tip unexpectedly towards his murderer.  

The feeling is amplified by the portrayal of the prince himself. Hamlet is played by George Fouracres, an actor who made his name as part of the comedy trio, Daphne. He is a Black Country prince, delivering the famous lines in a broad Wolverhampton accent. Despite the efforts of companies such as Northern Broadsides to normalise regional accents in Shakespeare, this is still something that is rarely seen. His distinctive tones resonate with the language, giving it a different musicality and revealing new inflections on well-known speeches. Shakespeare and his contemporaries are thought to have spoken in an accent much closer to modern West Country than to received pronunciation, so this arguably a more authentic approach. However, Fouracres is a very downbeat Hamlet, and a remarkably unsympathetic one. Holmes’ decision to dress him as Morrissey, in a far-from-subtle continuation of The Smiths theme, seems to match his misanthropic spirit. In a paisley shirt, skin-tight black jeans and sixteen-hole Doc Martens, Fouracres resembles someone working behind the counter of the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore around 1995. There has rarely been a more morose Dane, but the characterisation feels unsubtle, and foregrounds the least attractive aspects of the character’s behaviour. Hamlet seems most alive when viciously attacking both Ophelia and Gertrude, as though this was his real revenge. Misogyny may be a true reflection of the entitled ‘90s male, but it makes Hamlet very hard to like.

The production’s confused approach manifests itself in a very uneven set of performances from the cast, who fail to present a unified approach to the play. Polly Frame, as Gertrude, is an honourable exception and her scenes have a coherence and weight that is unfortunately lacking elsewhere. Irfan Shamji plays Claudius as a klutz, without any sense of menace or the ruthlessness needed to seize the throne. John Lightbody’s Polonius is broad and comic, a fool through and through who plays to the crowd, but eliminates any sympathy for the character with his ludicrous behaviour. Rachel Hannah Clarke’s portrayal of Ophelia seems to change from scene to scene, and she appears most at home when involving the audience in the call-and-response popular with drunken cricket fans: ‘Everywhere we go / the people want to know / who we are / where we come from’. This, it can safely be said, undercuts the effectiveness of her mad scene, substituting emotional impact for brief, irrelevant audience engagement. 

Holmes contrives to make Hamlet much more confusing than needs to be. Cuts mean that Hamlet is suddenly considered mad, without any apparent lead up, while his relationship with Ophelia progresses in jump cuts. The director takes the surprising decision to include the two courtiers, Cornelius and Voltemand, whose tiny parts are usually absent, but transfers Claudius’ confusion over which is which from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to them. Later, the same actors morph into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern anyway, without explanation. Individually, decisions such as these are quibbles but there are too many of them to avoid. 

Holmes approach strongly implies a lack of confidence in the play to engage the audience, or in the audience to last the course. The Gravedigger is played by composer and on-stage guitarist Ed Gaughan, who breaks the fourth wall to explain how difficult it is to make his scene funny, and how by this point in the play everyone is usually getting tired. As if to illustrate, he then delays the final scenes by another few minutes with a series of lame jokes about tv quiz The Chase , as if the audience need to be cajoled into paying attention with some second-rate stand-up. This sums up the problems with a production that seems most comfortable when it can find a way to avoid taking the play seriously.