Some people are so precious about Shakespeare. There’s historical merit in periodic restrained, original practice productions, and modern productions with superficial concepts add a degree of variation, but neither approach progresses contemporary Shakespeare performance practice. The first folio texts, those regarded closest to Shakespeare’s intentions, still may be quite distant from what may have come from the actors in the moment. Scholars can only speculate on performance style, staging and most other production elements due to a dearth of primary sources. Considering all of that, theatre makers should mess about with Shakespeare more.
Kelly Hunter does that with her Hamlet, Who’s There? by reconfiguring the original timescale and characters to place her adaptation firmly in the present. As two frivolous, tacky families with more money than sense drunkenly celebrate a wedding, a disregarded son suffers a psychotic episode that triggers their collective downfall. Six actors focus the tragedy on the familial element, making this more of a kitchen sink drama than a grandiose spectacle. This is a Hamlet that’s easy to relate to but still be horrified by. The intimacy is well performed and powerful, and Hunter’s script, whilst dramatically different from the original, still contains its visceral, conflicted essence.
Mark Quartley is Hamlet, an angsty, tormented young man disgusted by his elders. He excellently embodies the grief that tips him into Schizophrenia, making him believe he is his dead father. This device carries him forward on a mad quest for revenge. Quartley’s Hamlet is a victim, not just of his surroundings but also his own mind. Kelley Hunter is his drunk mother Gertrude, sloppy and self-absorbed. She’s a great contrast to Quartley, and also to her manipulative new husband Claudius (Tom Mannion), who keeps her well-lubricated throughout the story. The second family is a hapless Polonius (Steven Beard) and two children. Laertes (Finlay Cormack) has been wonderfully reimagined as Hamlet’s best friend, using lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Their brief encounters are intimate and warming, alleviating Hamlet’s otherwise relentless agony. The language comes easily to the cast, managing to not jar with the modern story.
Though the performances are excellent, the highlight of this production is Hunter’s script. Pared down, it’s more Eastenders than Stratford, and the use of identifiable mental health issues and familial conflict help move it away from Shakespeare’s fantastical ghosts and dated duels. Ophelia’s madness is logically clarified through wonderfully disturbing staging, with Hunter also directing. The gravedigger scene is still present, but somehow fits in with the concept. Though the end is rushed and heavily changed from the original, it cuts a striking image.
Hamlet, Who’s There? As a title also suits Hamlet’s mental health struggles as he searches for himself and the father that takes over his mind. Hunter’s set is sparse, but symbolic items and copious amount of blood are visually dynamic. The venue’s lighting balcony and ladder up to it are also cleverly employed.
Flute Theatre and Kelly Hunter’s script bring Hamlet firmly into the present with Hamlet, Who’s There?. It’s firm proof that Shakespeare can be made even more relevant through radical reinterpretations and confident textual adaptations. There’s no need to slavishly follow Shakespeare’s original scripts all the time, but still respect the integrity of the language and story. This is a fantastic production at the forefront of contemporary Shakespeare practice.
Hamlet, Who’s There? Is touring the UK and Europe through the summer.
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