Lazarus have built up a reputation for their highly visual and vibrant reinterpretations of classic plays. Having tackled several Shakespearean works previously, including Othello, MacBeth (twice), King Lear (twice), it seemed like the Prince of Denmark was long overdue a Lazarus makeover.
From the moment you enter the Large at Southwark Playhouse, you are struck immediately that you can expect something quite different. The auditorium is in end-stage formation. There is no set to speak of. The walls are as exposed as we have ever seen at Southwark. Two banks of lights are either side of a circle of basic chairs. Pictures of the glass skull used on the poster surround the room. This is a very pared back and raw Elsinore.
This production of Hamlet begins with the strikingly young cast assembling around the circle of chairs, forming a sort of group therapy. “Welcome to this safe space” booms a thunderous voice from above, before quoting Polonius’ advice “to thine own self be true”. Each cast member introduces themselves and gives a nugget of insight about their character. Last to speak is Hamlet who launches into the ‘O That This Too Solid Flesh Would Melt‘ soliloquy and we plunge into the play – or at least some of it.
Anyone familiar with Hamlet will soon realise who is noticeable for their absence: the older characters are not present. In theory, it’s a bold concept, presumably with the aim of throwing the focus on the young Prince and his contemporaries. In practice, it creates several problematic challenges. Without Gertrude, the fuel to the Prince’s anger and disturbance is missing. Without Claudius, the focus of Hamlet’s hate as well as the painful reminder of his inaction is diffused and indistinct. Without Polonius’ manipulative presence, the catastrophic consequences on his daughter Ophelia and his son Laertes isn’t felt quite as keenly. The result of this production’s grand conceit is the story becomes fragmented and for those unfamiliar with the story, harder to follow.
A perfect example of how this editorial decision weakens the drama comes with the play-within-the-play. ‘The Mousetrap’ is performed to catch the conscience of the King but how can Claudius’ guilt be glimpsed at the restaging of the murder when he isn’t even there?
Putting aside this admittedly-fundamental error, what remains is highly impressive.
Ricky Dukes‘ production is brimming with ideas and energy. The director does take a somewhat pasta approach – throw an idea against the wall and see if it sticks. And plenty does. Shadowy Elsinore is lit only by torches and haze with a giant accompanying wind fan giving a particularly elemental setting for the arrival of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Instead of one person speaking Old Hamlet’s lines, several members of the ensemble deliver the dialogue from the side shadows on microphones. The effect is to maximise the confusion of the Prince’s mind and even hints at the notion that all of Elsinore wants Hamlet to avenge their slain king.
When Hamlet chastises himself as “a dull and muddy-mettled rascal” from the ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I‘ soliloquy, behind him emerges the ensemble, each in Hamlet face masks. It’s a striking image that suggests something hovering between a Greek chorus and haunting self-reflection.
The scene where Hamlet discovers Claudius praying in the chapel is realised in this production by a strong shaft on amber light blazing in from a door off stage. While Hamlet deliberates, there is a noticeable aroma of incense that permeates the auditorium. It’s small sensory touches that demonstrates this production’s commitment to render a vivid, engaging experience for its audience.
The most impressive coup de Theatre comes with Ophelia’s death. Having handed her various plants to the assembled inhabitants of Elsinore, including of course rosemary for remembrance, Ophelia disappears offstage. The three screens on stage spark to life and we follow her through empty corridors of Southwark Playhouse. This ‘live’ stream is accompanied by a tension-inducing single, repeated piano note. The sound resembles a pulse but also it feels like the inevitability of her intended action. The end of this last journey is stylishly-executed and manages to be suitably shocking.
Lazarus Theatre Company deserves praise not only for a diverse company but also for giving three out of the ten-strong cast their first professional engagement. Remarkably the actor playing the Danish Prince is his debut performance. Michael Hawkey has a magnetic stage presence. He commands the scene after scene with his troubled Hamlet. Never histrionic, he gives nuance to the twists and turns of a fracturing mind.
Given the erasure of several transformative scenes, notably Hamlet’s confrontation of Gertrude in her chamber and the murder of Polonius, Hawkey does well to maintain the breadcumb trail of the Prince’s psychology.
Another standout performance comes from Kalifa Taylor. She is breathtaking as First Player. Her speech is beautifully modulated and allows the Bard’s words their rhythms and breaths. It is a wow moment from an actor who clearly has a high-promising career ahead of her.
It would be tempting for a review to focus on what’s missing from Lazarus Theatre Company’s reframing of Hamlet but we prefer to look what it offers. Too many “traditional” productions have little to say about the piece. What the Lazarus company do is engage the audience and make you think again about the play. This Hamlet has a kinetic energy to its performance. There’s a thrill in its unpredictability and enough visual flair to intrigue anyone unfamiliar with Shakespeare to explore further.
An energetic Prince in a visually inventive Elsinore impress in an over-abridged Hamlet – ★★★★ (4 stars)