St Pauls, Covent Garden
Red banners bearing a black and white Celtic Cross symbol set Iris Theatre’s production of Hamlet in a totalitarian state which turns out not to be Denmark but changed to England. Women’s capes and hoods (a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale) hint at a similar dogmatism and television screens seem to line every location.
There is nothing new in setting Hamlet in a controlling state and a surveillance society and director Daniel Winder doesn’t seem to be making any clear point about contemporary Britain but we do get a very clear, somewhat streamlined telling of the story.
The political setting may explain why King Claudius’s takeover of the state has happened so easily and Hamlet’s apparent acceptance of it until his father’s ghost appears to report his own murder.
There is a 6:30AM daily propaganda cast on the TV and video is useful used to share messages received by smartphone, but its not clear whether a glimpse of eavesdropping Claudius and courtier Polonius are actually being videoed by someone (the publicity hinted at an underground opposition) or just to remind the audience that they are there. In a world of electronic surveillance, hiding behind drapery seems unnecessarily risky (though the plot needs it). The continual use of video loops, a 1960s BBC station ident and flickering screens in fact distracts from the action and there is certainly no need of a shot of a watch face when the dialogue identifies the time as near midnight.
A cast of only seven actors doubling all the roles necessitates some pruning, innovation and amazing quick changes before reappearance. The first appearance of the ghost in a stained white suit with his head wrapped in plastic makes one wonder if he was suffocated by a shopping bag rather than poisoned, but this proves a ploy to enable his duplication and a grotesquery to identify the company of actors who come to court.
This Hamlet is confident rather than traditionally indecisive, hyperactive and impulsive; though he never reveals his own game plan, he can be ruthless. Hamlet is played by Jenet Le Lacheur, a non-binary actor whom I last saw (then called James) as an excellent James in Colchester Mercury’s James and the Giant Peach. It is a well-spoken performance, thin on poetry but full of energy. The casting rather than the text produces an intriguing new angle in which his student friend Horatio, gently played by Harold Addo, is clearly closer than anyone. He alone addresses Hamlet as “My Lady” and they are exchanging a kiss when interrupted. Is there something more behind Hamlet’s break with Ophelia (with whom he has previously exchange love tokens) than his feigning madness?
Vinta Morgan makes a very strong Claudius, a man who has clearly thought out what he will say in his public appearances (though he could take more time to think when exploring his own guilt) and Clare Bloomer presents a seemingly innocent Gertrude, a doting mother doing her best but her life as much a straightjacket as her awful costume.
This production’s Polonius is female and it is intriguing to see the effect of the gender change. Fussily forceful, Paula James (in an intentionally hideous uniform) is more like a bossy WI chairwoman than a political adviser. Jenny Horsthuis and Joe Parker as Ophelia and Laertes, the children she is lovingly proud of, clearly return her affection, though perhaps they are a little too perfect making her descent into madness and his thirst for revenge even more poignant. The pair do another double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the students the King and Queen summon to court thinking them Hamlet’s university chums, straight out of some extra posh Oxbridge dining club this Hamlet would never belong to.
We see him in his own sphere when, having set up the touring actors to perform for the Royals, he joins them in an outbreak of vogueing before the presentation of a video version of the play that he has planned to reveal the king’s guilt. Sadly that doesn’t work, especially disappointing after the emotional performance the players give earlier when Hamlet asks them to deliver a favourite speech from a classical tragedy.
Although this production moves between the churchyard, different parts of the garden and into the church itself, it is not properly a promenade, fixed seating is provided at every location, but the location has it own special atmosphere adding to audience enjoyment.
In the dramatically lit church, when it reaches its dramatic conclusion, time seems to have sped by. This isn’t the most profound production of Hamlet you may see in your lifetime but if it someone’s first time it is an excellent, fast-paced introduction.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton