Titus Andronicus last year, and now she takes one of that show's ingredients, Adam Lawrence, and gives him Shakespeare's biggest role with an even more striking concept applied to it. Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince whose father has been murdered by his uncle; he wants revenge, but he's held captive by various factors, not least of all his own contradictory thoughts. Ford takes Hamlet's metaphorical imprisonment and strips it of the metaphor: Her production takes place inside a prison, where Lawrence's Hamlet has just been incarcerated for an unspecified crime. His uncle/stepfather Claudius (Russell Barnett) hasn't so much stolen Hamlet's succession as King, as that of crime kingpin, and he and Gertrude's (Joyce Greenaway) interactions with Hamlet happen in the visiting room.
Hamlet's University friends and the castle guards become his fellow inmates; Polonius (Anthony Kernan) the governor, Laertes (Darcy Vanhinsberg) a guard and Ophelia (Jessica White) a counselor leading group therapy sessions for the prisoners.
Imposing a high concept on any Shakespeare play will only ever work so far, but I did have my concerns about this particular setting for Hamlet - the conceit struck me as taking a single exchange in the script a bit too literally, and I couldn't see how it would work. Ford's work on Titus though was well thought-out, so I was interested to see if she could pull this off. Frustratingly, she actually comes a lot closer than I thought anyone could, but frequently trips up just as the relocation starts to look convincing.
The production uses a heavily edited text that frequently wanders off the path of Shakespeare's text to include improvised, modern English moments that better reflect the brutality of the surroundings. So it's strange then when certain moments haven't been cut that directly contradict them. Like early on, when Claudius and Gertrude first come to visit and wonder why Hamlet's still in mourning - asking someone who's just been locked up why the clouds still hang on him has an unintentionally comic effect. The speech about Denmark being a prison which inspired the whole production could, ironically, have done with being cut as well - Hamlet is being asked why he believes himself to be in prison by people who are also, quite obviously, in prison with him.
The production is full of little moments that cleverly fit the story to its new setting, but the big picture still doesn't work. It's a a smart idea to get rid of the players, "The Mousetrap" now becoming a play put on by the prisoners themselves. But then Ford keeps the Hecuba speech, giving it to Barnardo as a breakthrough in his group therapy as he recalls a woman he actually saw lose her husband. It was a mixed experience to watch because Jack Greenlees absolutely knocks it out of the park, but the whole point of that speech being there is that it isn't genuine. Having Barnardo be coaxed into confronting his demons makes no sense as a cue for Hamlet to bemoan being upstaged by "a fiction." I did also wish the relationship between Claudius and Polonius had been more furtive - having a prison governor in the pay of a crime boss seems plausible, but not that they'd be so brazen about it.
I'll try and wind up on the way the high concept plays out because there are other things I want to talk about here - I think what I ultimately wished was that the relocation hadn't been so literal. If it had been suggested that the prison setting was all in Hamlet's head a lot of the logic problems would vanish; or perhaps if the liberties taken with the text could have gone even further, as the show sometimes feels more like a riff on Hamlet than a production of the play itself. Turning it into a whole new experimental look at themes from the play might have been more rewarding (I'm unconvinced someone who didn't know the story already would have been able to follow it properly here.)
But as I said, if Ford's ambition has tripped her up on the big picture, there's still much to enjoy here. I've seen the Danish court reinterpreted as a mob family before, but Lawrence actually convinces as the kind of Hamlet who might have grown up in that environment. He also provides a couple of interpretations of the text that will stick with me, a rarity once you've seen the play twenty-odd times: There's a nice reading of "Well, well, well," as well as an "in jest/ingest" pun I've not seen brought out so clearly before. He does need to listen to his castmates more carefully though, as he steps on quite a lot of their lines. Other good performances include White's depressed, rather than outright mad, Opehlia, and Damian Escayg's lumbering Francisco (it's a funny touch to then have Escayg give the closest thing to a traditional RP performance when he doubles as the priest.)
The show also more than delivers on the more earthy things that make for a memorable evening: We start with Lawrence being strip-searched (although I'd dispute the website's breathless claims of "full frontal" nudity - you need to face the audience if you want a scrolling alert round these parts) and the concluding fencing match becomes a bare-knuckle round of boxing. Near the end of the interval, Ford has Nathan Whitfield's thuggish Guildenstern stalk the stage shirtless, occasionally doing pushups, for little other reason than to give the audience a treat as his oversized nipples jut1. And then there's the no-holds-barred violence, with brutally realistic fights from Josh Jefferies, and no holding back on the stage blood (actually from a front row vantage point I have to compliment how well the cast time the delivery of the spurting blood with the jabs with sharpened toothbrushes.) Much to enjoy then, even if the production overall never manages to match the play with its conceit; I do look forward to seeing what other high concepts Zoé Ford has in her, as this bold approach is risky, but is likely to strike gold whenever it does work.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare is booking until the 22nd of June at Riverside Studio 3.
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.
1according to my blog stats, somebody arrived here by Googling the phrase "his oversized nipples jut," and who am I to disappoint my audience? Although technically while Whitfield has the generously-sized nipples, it's Lawrence's that are perkier.