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Photo credit: George Fouracres as Hamlet, Polly Frame as Gertrude, Irfan Shamji as Claudius (Photo by Johan Persson)

'Hamlet' review — a shouty Shakespeare adaptation speaks volumes

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

A mad production of a play about madness, Sean Holmes's new Hamlet marks the first time for this most oft-performed tragedy at the Globe's indoor playhouse. Say what you will about a sweary, unbridled staging that is likely to divide opinion, Holmes's take on a text sometimes undertaken as an act of duty certainly isn't dull.

Indeed, I laughed out loud when the wonderful Ed Gaughan - the play's resident guitarist making an 11th-hour appearance as the Gravedigger - asks the audience whether we're "still awake". Hamlet, he advises, is 9 hours 48 minutes long, so he doesn't want to use up too much of our time with (hilarious) riffing on Stockholm syndrome, Susan Boyle and the like. After all, as he rightly points out, "this play is not going to dig itself".

Not that there's much chance in any case of dozing off, given two intervals to break up the 3-1/4 hour running time (longer Hamlets have had fewer breaks) and a general shoutiness that, I have to say, started to wear me down during the first hour.

George Fouracres, the Hamlet, was previously seen outdoors at this same address as a delightful Flute in Holmes's rowdy A Midsummer Night's Dream. His instinctive anarchy finds an apt outlet of a different sort in the snarky, Doc Marten-wearing Dane on view here, a sullen malcontent who is given to sudden outbursts delivered at the top of his lungs that one could doubtless hear as far as Elsinore.

The aim in general recalls the approach of Holmes's onetime Filter company aesthetic to deliver Shakespeare shorn of any of the cobwebs that may have accrued to his work over time. And so we have a music-heavy show that draws from The Smiths one minute, extended passages from Romeo and Juliet the next, and encourages the audience in a singalong all the while allowing for every expletive possible: "Where the fuck is my father?" asks Laertes (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) near the end, a question resistant to iambic pentameter.

The set is defined by a circular pool centre-stage that certainly gets a workout, encircled by marbled walls that gain in graffiti after the first interval, with scrawled admonitions to make remembrance a thing while paying heed to villainy. Characters don't so much die in this staging, as linger on to haunt the living, and Rachel Hannah Clarke's Ophelia is a particularly potent presence, bringing Fouracres's sometimes monotonously sardonic Hamlet to the brink - however belatedly - of tears.

The production pays scant attention to gender (nothing new there) and age, with John Lightbody a younger-than-usual, whispery Polonius who speaks to his children at the start in a notably seductive tone. I liked, too, the inebriation of Polly Frame's flowing-dressed Gertrude in her fatal final scene, tossing back fizz with an ease matched by an earring that dropped from her face earlier on only to remain on view toward the front of the stage.

The costumes mix periods and styles (Irfan Shamji's Claudius is in court jester mode) with the stylistic mash-up that has become a Holmes trademark, lest this of all writers seem remotely preserved in aspic. At times, Holmes has to struggle to adapt the unruly ways of the Globe outdoors to this more constricted interior space.

"Was it Hamlet wronged Laertes?" the crowd is asked multiple times before one playgoer bravely shouted out the reply, "Maybe". And the Brummie-accented Fouracres, his face at times reminiscent of a younger Russell Crowe, expends energy aplenty to lend variety and animation - sometimes too much so - to a potentially indrawn, morose character, who in this iteration exists boldly on the front foot throughout. If the result is to play down Hamlet's vaunted introspection and pathos, this is that rare Hamlet that gets better as it goes along.

I noticed one or two people making for the exit at the first break whereas, if anything, I would encourage maximum attendance and attention paid to the closing hour. That's especially true when Gaughan in a spur-of-the-moment remark as the Gravedigger references the English as "a very polite but warlike people": his throwaway assessment won't be found in Shakespeare's text but will stay with me for some while to come.

Hamlet is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to 9 April. Book Hamlet tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: George Fouracres as Hamlet, Polly Frame as Gertrude, Irfan Shamji as Claudius (Photo by Johan Persson)

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