Hamlet at Riverside Studios
Act 2, Scene 2: “Denmark’s a prison” says Hamlet. Director Zoe Ford interprets this line literally in her violent adaptation. A young man is led onstage, stripped naked and his orifices inspected with a torch. There are few words. We are in Her Majesty’s Prison Liverpool, the man is Hamlet. This is not remotely the Shakespeare most are familiar with, no distant Danish kingdom – it’s Liverpool, now. Then the speaking starts, the authenticity fades and this looks set to be yet another Shakespeare play plonked thoughtlessly in a different setting in the name of rejuvenation and accessibility.
Except it’s not thoughtless at all. While Act 2 focuses on violence, packed with brilliantly choreographed fights, in Act 1 the script is mined for lines that have a different meaning in the prison context: Hamlet’s “trappings and suits of woe” are not mourning attire, but his standard issue prison tracksuit. Polonius says to Laertes: “There, my blessing with thee” as he slips him a wad of cash. “What a piece of work is man” is delivered in a group therapy session led by Ophelia (played with tenderness and ease by Jessica White). Long reflective monologues work well in the prison setting; Hamlet, the introspectionist par excellence, is confined to both a spiritual and physical cell.
Sometimes Shakespeare’s language and the contemporary setting are at odds. The cast improvise jarring interjections and puncture pauses with swearing, breaking the careful rhythm of Shakespeare’s language. Claudius says to Laertes, “Take thy leave. [pause] No worries son.” But other additions work well: on Hamlet’s first night inside, in pitch black, cigarette lighters flick on and off amid heavy, ghoulish breathing and childlike whimpering. This is the turmoil of Hamlet’s troubled mind externalised, laid bare for the audience.
Adam Lawrence’s Hamlet eases into madness and many moments of full-throated bellowing blaze with intensity. But, compared to the other inmates, Lawrence is more believably a thoughtful prince, a sweet prince. He has stylised hair and a voice that whines like a frightened child. He is piteous, yes (and so he should be) but fearsome? Frightening? Only intermittently.
“I could be bounded in a nutshell” says Hamlet, “and count myself a king of infinite space.” Ford’s brutal, biting adaptation takes this line to heart. Hamlet is bounded in a prison cell, but left to battle with the infinite space of his messed-up mind.
Photo: Adam Trigg
Hamlet is at Riverside Studios until 22nd June 2014, for further information and to book visit here.