English Repertory Theatre runs until 15 March
The works of the Bard have been so frequently adapted, reworked and reinvented that there’s no point in having any preconceptions about what works and what doesn’t. This particular interpretation of Hamlet transports the action, at least in the early scenes, to the schoolroom: Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia and Rosencrantz study history under schoolmaster Horatio. With modern references and hefty cuts, the production promises to be a “fast-paced black comedy” while also working in the tragic ending.
The fundamental flaw with this is that there is no comic base to start from, so very little to build this interpretation around. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, for example, which is pretty much a ‘comedy’ up until the death of Mercutio, the original text of Hamlet launches straight into death, spirits, revenge, feigned madness and angst. The school setting could have potential if English Repertory Theatre had really run with the idea and been brave enough, yet subtle enough, to use the play’s original material in new and exciting ways. Yet it is sadly half-hearted and becomes a jumble: so much is lost in the drastic cuts and ignoring of central philosophies, and comedy is shoe-horned in awkwardly where there should be none. The setting becomes mismatched to the themes very quickly, and the only character who undergoes serious revision is Horatio — unfortunately without much success, as he is forced to modulate between repeated concerned alarm and cringeworthy comedic attempts.
To make this Hamlet only 90 minutes, there are of course some necessary brutal edits to be made. These appear to have been done with a blunt knife, as meaning and beauty has been sucked from large parts of the dialogue, making the Shakespearean words appear as dry and perplexing as many fear it to be. The madness and violence that unfold make little sense when so much context has been removed, and you have to be very familiar with the play to fill in the gaps for yourself — which surely undermines the attempt to make it accessible.
It’s not all bad news: Rachel Waring is engaging to watch in Act I and works well in the characterisation of the teenaged Hamlet, but I couldn’t help but feel she is let down by an unsatisfying concept, and therefore has no emotional depths to reach into when the tragedy unfurls in Act II. The fact that she is female doesn’t matter an inch, and it’s nice to see gender-blind casting as not a big deal, but this is not the production to bring out the best in Waring. Nina Bright is also likeable but perhaps miscast as Ophelia, as her fresh portrayal lacks the complexity that can make this difficult part so fascinating. Oliver Hume makes for a worthy Polonius, but overall the cast all lack the peaks and troughs that should carry us through this turbulent play.
There’s nothing wrong with bold reinventions of Shakespeare that keep the works fresh and alive, but they should retain the heart and soul of the play, or they become mere shadows of the epics that we hold so dear. This production is less an adaptation than a reduction of the play and, I fear, will not live long in the memory of its audience.