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.
Hamlet doesn't seal their fate by the swapping of letters rather they brawl with razor blades, the prison weapon of choice. In fact the fight scenes - and there are more than you'd normally see in a conventional Hamlet - are really well done. Sitting on the front row, so close to the action, I did flinch a couple of times. Further bonus points for use of stage blood, not something you often seen in small productions.
Must also mention Jessica White who gave a satisfyingly understated 'mad' scene as Ophelia, something more akin to depression rather than raging lunacy as normally portrayed.
It all builds nicely to the final fight, conducted in a mock boxing ring. Starting out as an almost gentlemanly fist fight, if you can have such a thing, it quickly tips over into no holds barred slasher-fest. Getrude's poisoning seems almost incidental but then this isn't a production when Hamlet's mother seems very present and so can easily be dismissed.
You aren't going to get the nuances of the play from this production but that didn't stop it making me look at certain lines afresh because of the way they were performed. It's a sign of a good Hamlet in my book.
Purists will probably harrumph but this is a frenetic-paced, bloody and muscular Hamlet that is also a lot of fun. Hiraeth and director Zoe Ford have done it again. It runs at the Riverside Studios 3 until June 22.
Adam Lawrence was in Peaky Blinders which starred Cillian Murphy who is in the forthcoming Heart of the Sea film. Now Mr W, I think, is only doing voice over as narrator for this, so there is a chance their paths haven't crossed. So as a back up, Roger Allam was in the audience and he worked with Dame Helen Mirren in The Queen who was 'Propera' to Mr W's Ariel in Julie Taymor's The Tempest. There are probably loads of others via Roger Allam but thought the Shakespeare most appropriate.