Our entire experience of Hamlet thus far came from our school days – memories of long lessons pouring over unfathomable soliloquies. There was no swearing, no smoking, and certainly no nudity.
Yet all three are dropped into the first ten minutes of Riverside Studios’ version, making it clear that this is no ordinary production of Hamlet. The Danish castle of the original makes way for a Liverpudlian prison, with Hamlet’s uncle-stepfather cast as a crime ring leader, and the f-bomb (and worse) being dropped left, right and centre, usually to comic ends.
We had considered brushing up on our dog-eared school notes before going along, and for the first few minutes, we wished we had. Shakespeare can be challenging enough to understand, and the fast-paced Liverpudlian spin on this version makes it all the more difficult to follow. A few minutes in, however, our ears had accustomed to the thick Scouse accents – varying somewhat in credibility from actor to actor.
The staging is economical but effective enough, with three movable prison gates making the transformations needed for every scene. During some scenes, two conversations happen simultaneously on the stage, with the audience conflicted over which they should follow.
Lighting is used to good effect, but the most overpowering stage tool is the cigarette smoke. The characters light up unnecessarily on stage throughout, and although we've been assured that they were herbal cigarettes, the smoke and cigarette smell left some in the audience visibly struggling to breathe comfortably, and bursting out through the auditorium doors into fresh air at the interval. The smoke only got worse post-interval, and by the wrap, our lungs felt as though they had aged 10 years. If this was meant to be a tool to convey the claustrophobia of prison or of Hamlet's mental state, it only served to isolate the coughing audience.
Adam Lawrence as Hamlet does a brilliant job at staying as true to the original as the adapted script will allow, while bringing the play to life for a 21st century audience.
Not since Luhrmann was let loose on Romeo and Juliet has Shakespeare seen such a makeover, but to make one of the most famous tragedies in the world into a comedy is impressive. The play is somewhat abridged from Shakespeare’s original epic, and anyone hoping to see the infamous 'Alas poor Yorrick' monologue will be disappointed, as there’s not a human skull in sight.
While Shakespeare ‘s most avid supporters might argue that he’d be turning in his grave, we reckon that if he was here to see this, he’d be having a jolly good chuckle.
Hamlet is on at the Riverside Studios until 22 June 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.