Hamlet review – an independent prince of endless joke but little tragedy | Theater

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gGeorge Fouracres, best known as a comedian, recently appeared on the Globe stage as Andrew Aguecheek of Twelfth Night in an exquisite cast. He returns as the vengeful Prince Hamlet, again under the direction of Sean Holmes, but it’s not the Dane or the drama as we know it. It’s Hamlet: The Comedy, or a “farce-dramatic” as Polonius might say, with lots of interrogative questions.

Fouracres’s Hamlet is a modern-day Morrissey-singing indie guy stuck in a courtroom in period attire and speaks in a Black Country accent (Fouracres own). Sometimes he yelps or is delirious, sometimes he is on the verge of tears. That’s fine, but Fouracres also flattens the poetry and rhythm of his character’s beautiful soliloquies, deliberately it seems, speaking them slowly, simplifying them so that they sound almost like modern demotic. He also exploits his character’s suicidal angst for laughs. It’s entertaining – albeit weird too – but it sucks the tragedy out of the play.

Fouracres plays with easy confidence, but it feels like pastiche and his antique disposition is creepy and wacky without carrying any genuine anger and mental upheaval in its pretension. The deepest moments – his soliloquies, his ruminations on Gertrude’s hasty marriage, and his confrontation with her after Polonius’ death – feel deflated as a result.

Convincing… Polly Frame as Gertrude. Photography: Johan Persson

As an idea, there’s a lot of chutzpah in this production and some of them work: Irfan Shamji’s Claudius appears in stripes, like a court jester, and his giggling, giddy dance with Gertrude (Polly Frame, also convincing) in their first scene, shows them as irresponsible and amoral fun-seekers.

Anna Watson’s Gothic the lighting casts long shadows on the walls and the room gradually gets darker after Polonius dies (well done by John Lightbody). Ed Gaughan’s score ranges from breezy to goosebumps, with challenging sounds pulled from an electric guitar.

When the comedy momentarily ebbs and the characters play with straight faces, like the prayer scene in Claudius and the sudden tears in Hamlet just before the silent show, there are sparks of real tragedy that could have been potent, if they had been maintained.

But it feels like confection because the things that make Hamlet a tragedy and give it emotional intensity aren’t there – or not long enough – and we never get beyond the novelty value of the “comical” central idea, which hangs like a sick-fitting coat.

Polly Frame, Irfan Shamji, George Fouracres and John Lightbody.
Irresponsible and amoral entertainment lovers… Polly Frame, Irfan Shamji, George Fouracres and John Lightbody. Photography: Johan Persson

The play’s existential depths are not plumbed, nor are we accepting the pain and passion of Hamlet’s romance with Ophelia (Rachel Hannah Clarke). There’s no chemistry between them, and when she comes undone, she appears in a modern outfit and encourages a moment of singing in the auditorium. It’s a fun twist, but his character lacks a unified vision. A gender-swapped Laertes (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) is underpowered in grief and doesn’t bring enough tension to the final duel.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Ciarán O’Brien) looks like an evil creature when he appears in Gertrude’s room, nearly drowning young Hamlet in the set’s small central pool (clever design by Grace Smart), which doesn’t match not to ghost as a force of moral rectitude in this rotten court.

Maybe what’s needed with a vision as awkward as this is tension, but the pacing is jerky, the laughs lukewarm and the drama drags on. Just when we think we’ve arrived at the gravedigger scene, Gaughan delivers a lengthy skit in which he decodes its meanings. The production begins to show its intention to reach younger audiences here, explaining the joke about Hamlet being banished to England (“The subtext of this piece is that all English people are mad” says Gaughan).

Is it then a Hamlet ready to do anything to seduce young audiences? It’s certainly a counter-intuitive sequel to The Globe’s anti-romance Romeo and Juliet, directed last year by Ola Ince. Maybe some will celebrate its fun and boldness and there’s entertainment in it. But it feels too muddled, a mix of comedy and gothic horror with other Shakespearian cross-references (the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and a fleeting imitation of Richard III). He never quite arrives at the tragedy and is, in the end, hoisted up with his own firecracker.

At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until April 9.

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