The first five minutes of Zoe Ford’s production of Hamlet are unrecognizable as one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies. The play opens with Hamlet being subjected to a shockingly graphic strip search; for reasons never explained, Hamlet is incarcerated at HMP Liverpool in the 21st Century where the script starts not with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, but the stacato commands and grunts of prison administration.
Not so much bringing the play up to date, rather transposing it to Merseyside mafia, Shakespeare’s poetic language goes on to be delivered in strong Liverpudlian accents throughout. Shakespeare in Scouse was almost incomprehensible at first but my London ear quickly tuned-in and appreciated such a rich departure from RSC RP. This fresh approach worked well but was hindered by occasional departures from the script and almost ruined by obscenities peppering the dialogue: full marks for the modernization, zero marks for the dumbing-down.
Adam Lawrence’s crime-boss Hamlet was powerful and sensitive, but able to match the threatening violence of Rosencrantz (Chris York) and Guildenstern (Nathan Whitfield), re-imagined as thuggish henchmen under the influence of crime-lord Claudius. The fighting is terrifyingly realistic and a dramatic highpoint in the play with York and Whitfield particularly warming to their roles as prison tough-guys.
The female cast members were weaker, perhaps due to the fact that their roles did not translate as effectively into the criminal setting. In order to get Ophelia (Jessica White) into the prison, she is not only the daughter of prison governor Polonius (Anthony Kernan) but also works as a sensible prison counselor. It was, therefore, difficult to accept that this no-nonsense Ophelia could so quickly descend to madness.
Such an original and vibrant interpretation of Hamlet is to be welcomed and the play’s northern edge provided a fascinating extra dimension. It only lost its way when that extra dimension smothered the text to become unrecognizable as Shakespeare and more akin to Brookside on steroids.
Reporter: Camilla Norton
Hiraeth Artistic Productions Hamlet
Wednesday 28th May to Sunday 22nd June