I normally avoid fringe productions of Shakespeare like the plague. I've seen a few too many dire versions but a couple of years ago there was a superb Titus Andronicus in a pub in Camden. Hiraeth Artistic Productions were behind it which is why, when an invite to see their Hamlet at the Riverside Studios pinged into my inbox, I didn't hesitate.
First it gets thumbs up because they've trimmed back the play to just two hours and 15 including an interval. Definitely nothing extraneous here. In fact it's almost (almost) a 'Hamlet - the best of'. I'm not sure how much you would understand if you were a first-timer but, for those of us who can boringly reel off a list of Hamlets we've seen, that didn't matter.
Like Titus is has a contemporary setting and is predominantly a young cast. No 33-year-old Hamlet here, Adam Lawrence who plays the Dane has a date of birth in the 90s (more bonus points). It's set in a Liverpool prison and opens with Hamlet being stripped of his street clothes, searched and put into regulation grey track suit and velcro trainers.
This is Shakespeare delivered with a thick scouse accent although Getrude (Joyce Greenaway) is Irish and Hamlet peevishly mimmicks her in the closet scene. It is fuelled by the testosterone of a predominantly male environment and a sprinkling of modern expletives which, in the prison context, works.
Not all of the concept does. The prison staging at times feels contrived and out of place; it's used as more than a "Denmark's a prison" metaphor to dismiss it as a thematic back drop but, like with a good action film, there is enough other good stuff going on you can easily suspend disbelief and questioning of logic.
In fact in some scenes it works really well. The players don't 'arrive' in Elsinore rather it is a prisoners therapy session, full of goading and teasing so that the Hecuba speech is delivered reluctantly as suppressed emotions and memories bubble to the surface. When the players perform in front of Hamlet's uncle Claudius and mother it is done with script in hand, microphones and a mixture of nonchalance and embarrassment.