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Hamlet review: brummie Hamlet gets lost in sea of wild concepts

Sean Holmes chucks songs by The Smiths and speeches from Romeo and Juliet into this baggy production

<p>George Fouracres as Hamlet </p>

George Fouracres as Hamlet

/ Johan Persson
By @nickcurtis
04 February 2022

t’s levelling up of a kind: this is the first Hamlet I’ve heard use the accent of Shakespeare’s native West Midlands. Yes, I know we can’t know what the bard or his actors sounded like back then, and yes, I know the character is Danish. But George Fouracres’ Black Country intonation adds a sardonic edge to the wit of his mopey indie prince and makes soliloquies like “to be or not to be” sound fresh. He also stresses what an appalling, manipulative git Hamlet is.

This arresting interpretation sits in a baggy and often slapdash production by Sean Holmes, spattered with anachronisms (“F*** you, Fortinbras!”), audience interaction, bizarre edits and snatches of Smiths songs. I’m guessing the aim is to capture the raucous, ungoverned atmosphere of an Elizabethan playhouse, but the result is incoherent. And over three hours long.

Shame, as there are insightful moments. Hamlet seems unstable from the start, and his mental decline is mirrored in a palace that becomes coated with graffiti, then progressively dilapidated. Holmes uses lighting – including total darkness at one point – like a painter. The doubling of roles is unusual and throws up some interesting contrasts: the martial ghost of Old Hamlet is also a weedy, deferential Guildenstern.

Here, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his murderous uncle Claudius seem genuinely besotted. Indeed, chief advisor Polonius (John Lightbody, amusing in a drawing-room comedy kind of way) seems to be locked in a Dominic Cummings-style power struggle with the queen for the ear of the king.

Polly Frame, as Gertrude, seems genuinely besotted with Claudius

/ Johan Persson

There’s genuine affection between this pompous but serious counsellor and his children, though his daughter Ophelia (Rachel Hannah Clarke) is infantilised. Hamlet bullies this child-like creature relentlessly: his lecture on how to perform a speech is here directed at her, seconds after he’s thrust the text into her hand.

But oh god, the other stuff. Grace Smart’s design is dominated by an ornamental pool, which the production constantly has to find uses for – a bench, a stage, a grave – but which mostly gets in the way. Is it too much of a spoiler if I tell you that all the dead people end up sitting in it in the end, singing I Know It’s Over?

The costumes are a mishmash, and so, frankly, is the acting. I can just about understand why Holmes introduces a speech from Romeo and Juliet, but not why he replaces the gravediggers’ dialogue with a rambling contemporary improv routine and a singalong of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, all performed by the show’s composer/musician Ed Gaughan. This is the most misguided interpretation of the scene since I saw it done in the mid-90s as a rap that ended with the words “now I’m gonna neck Ophelia”.

I unashamedly love the Globe for its boldness and irreverence, but this is one of the occasions when the creative team seem to be lobbing concepts at the script willy-nilly. Again, a shame, as Fouracres’ performance has depth and texture as well as novelty. It deserves a better setting.

Shakespeare’s Globe, to 9 April;