Hamlet. Sounds familiar, huh? Not if you see the new production at the Rose Theatre on Bankside, which is surprising in a whole range of ways - most of them good.
First, the venue. The Rose is not so much a theatre as an English Heritage site-cum-museum. Try to imagine a muddy archaeological dig encased within the (unheated) car-park basement of a modern office building, then add a raised platform for a tiny stage and seating on one side and you get something of the idea.
The 'dig' is all that remains of the original Rose Theatre, which was built in 1587 opposite the old Globe on Maiden Lane, now Park Street. It was rediscovered in the property boom of the late 1980s during routine excavations for the construction of Rose Court, the big office building on the West side of Southwark Bridge. A high-profile campaign by Ralph Fiennes, Sir Ian McKellen and the like eventually ended in a typically British compromise whereby the developer went ahead with the building, but pledged to protect the ruins. Then the new Globe was built, shifting attention 100 meters westwards.
This provides a highly unusual backdrop for a trip to the theatre. The wider space feels a bit like one of those abandoned East London warehouses that now feature trendy ambulatory productions. But in fact most of the action takes place on the platform overlooking the dig, which can’t be much larger than most living rooms.
This makes for an unusually intimate version of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy. If it hardly gives the impression of a bustling royal court, it does help Jonathan Broadbent very effectively convey Hamlet’s suicidal sense of claustrophobia. The only time we really wished there had been more space was in the final 'duel', which is turned into a somewhat anti-climactic game of drinking poker.
The intimacy is further intensified by two radical directorial decisions - first to cut the play by about two thirds and reorder some scenes, so that it lasts just 90 minutes, and second to stage it with just four actors. This is surprisingly convincing, even in the set-piece scenes that require much larger forces.
We particularly enjoyed the play-within-a-play, in which Hamlet has his uncle, King Claudius, act out his own fratricide (normally Claudius is watching a troupe of travelling players). Upon realising what he has done, the King tears down a curtain to reveal the watery wasteland of the archaeology site for the first time – an act of extraordinary dramatic and poetic power. We also liked the patterned jumper Hamlet was wearing, amusingly reminiscent of those worn by Sarah Lund, the star of The Killing, another sociopath who is in the habit of having Danish crime scenes re-enacted.
There is virtually no set, just a table and chairs and a series of red illuminated ropes. These normally show where the theatre stood but are here used to evoke the guilt that gradually enmeshes the entire household. They stretch across the waterlogged excavations, creating a mesmerising and entirely appropriate mirror effect.
This production is not for purists; it inevitably skates over many of the famously encyclopedic play’s complexities. But it is nonetheless a deeply evocative, moving Hamlet. Not to mention chilling – remember to wear your thermals...
Hamlet is playing at the Rose Theatre on Bankside until 3rd March. Tickets £12 / £10.