Romeo and Juliet at selected performances, is Michael Lesslie's Hamlet prequel, Prince of Denmark. Echoing a number of elements of Shakespeare's original, the play takes particular inspiration from the moment where Laertes returns to Denmark to avenge his father's death, threatening a coup and apparently having the popular support to make it a real possibility. Taking place a year or two before the events of Hamlet, we're at the point where the Prince's love letters to Ophelia are starting to look serious. Angered by the suspicion that Hamlet is just trying to get Ophelia into bed before ditching her, Laertes' thoughts start to turn against the Danish monarchy in general. But his proto-socialist pronouncements are marred by the obvious fact that it's himself he sees replacing them in power.
Given his high-profile casting across the three shows, Simon Lennon is clearly seen as the star turn of the NYT's class of 2013, and he backs this confidence up as the dark take on Laertes. Although not an entirely villainous rewrite of the role, there's a gleeful, furious side to his plotting that made me think I'd like to see Lennon's Iago some day. I did like Laertes condemning Hamlet's tendency to soliloquise - which he does in his own soliloquy.
James Laurence Hunter's Geordie Hamlet isn't a saint either - getting the Player Prince (Miguel Brooking) to swap places with him so he can get out of being grounded, and go off to shag Ophelia by a certain brook under a willow tree - but nor is he quite who Laertes thinks he is either. Largely motivated by disgust at his father's aggressive foreign policy, his rants against Hamlet Sr. serve as interesting background to his later guilt after his death.
There's lots about Lesslie's play that makes for interesting reinterpretation of the familiar story that comes later, as well as some funny little in-jokes, and some dark foreshadowing. I particularly liked the chance to see Hamlet watch the production of a Pyrrhus play that he ends up memorising. Not everything works though, and Prince of Denmark particularly gets itself tied up in knots with the history of open animosity it gives its two central characters. Perhaps it's best to take the cue from Hamlet's riverside musings to Ophelia and view it not as a prequel, but as an alternate Hamlet - what might have been if tensions had come to the surface that little bit earlier, while still not managing to defuse themselves and leaving the ultimate outcome likely to stay the same.
This was probably, for me, the most successful entry in the National Youth Theatre's season. I've found it to be a mixed experiment, putting an ensemble (that seems, to me, to be slightly older than past years', although I could be miles off) not only onto a West End stage but also into an old-fashioned rep programme that could stand them in good stead should the likes of the RSC or Propeller come calling in the future. It's also held up more starkly the difference in ability between the players though - there's certainly more than one I hope to see on stage again, but also a few on the opposite end of the scale (it being a youth theatre I won't be mean-spirited enough to name names, but I hope the season makes a couple of people realise their love of the stage might be better served in a job that doesn't require stepping onto it.) I'd certainly give it a look if the company decide to try the experiment again in future years.
Prince of Denmark by Michael Lesslie is booking in repertory until the 25th of November at the Ambassadors Theatre.
Running time: 55 minutes straight through.