I went to see Hiraeth Productions‘ Hamlet thanks to what is unquestionably the best email I have ever gotten, which began, “Hi Kerry, We at Hiraeth Artistic Productions loved your drunk review of our Richard III so much that we wanted to invite you along to review our next production”.
LIFE SUCCESS, GUYS! Truly I have forged an excellent future for myself in this important line of drunk arts criticism and it’s all G&Ts and midweek press nights from here on out: life sorted! Now however I went to the show in early June and it closed in late June, and if you’ve spotted the flaw in the fact that this post is going up at the end of July then congratulations you and well done on self-sabotaging your glorious would-have-been future me, and I deeply apologise to Tabitha, Hiraeth’s very kind press officer.
Nevertheless: The second Saturday in June was the first warm weekend day of the summer, and in the afternoon I went to Hammersmith to eat tacos and drink pitchers of margaritas, followed by prosecco followed by cider followed by gin, in the park by the river with Ewan and two single friends who I was idly hoping would hit it off. It was a very warm day and we got through A Fair Bit Of Booze before two of us peeled off to the Riverside Studios, where it remained very warm inside the theatre. This caused the actors to get a bit sweaty (helloooooo) and also resulted in me doing something I am very not proud of.
(Did I order another drink for the first half? I think so? Why did I do that?)
Director/HAP artistic director Zoe Ford picked out the concept from one of Hamlet’s more melodramatic lines, and set the story in a literal prison. Hamlet (Adam Lawrence) came on in a funeral suit and changed (onstage, helloooooooo) into grey sweats; the guard bringing him back inside murmured, “I’m sorry for your loss”. First question: why is Hamlet in prison? It’s presumably not for his father’s murder if he’s just been let out to go to the funeral; has Claudius framed him for something? Has young Hamlet actually killed a man, like Moses? Are they a mob family and has Hamlet been charged with something that stuck? Is he a fall guy?
The lack of explanation isn’t a fault with the concept, it’s excellent. Shakespeare has no problem throwing unexplained setups at us (Why is Lear splitting up his kingdom? Why did Duke Frederick depose Duke Senior? What war are the Dons coming back from?) and the imprisonment of the crown prince was the same thing, a fact that told us a lot about the rules of the world were dealing with – one in which it is acceptable to jail the queen’s son – and the character of this Hamlet – violent and very capable of decisive action.
Claudius (Russell Barnett) and Gertrude (Joyce Greenaway) were like George and Lucille Bluth played straight. Gertrude was naturally concerned for her son but I think slightly relieved that she didn’t have to deal with him at home any more. When she spoke with him after The Mousetrap, it was during contained visiting hours, and was broken up by a guard. When she drank from a poisoned water bottle, Claudius stepped back and watched her fall.
Ophelia (Jessica White) was a therapist who led group sessions among the prisoners (a lot of rejigging of lines here: The Mousetrap was awesomely staged as a therapeutic work that Hamlet’s parents were grudgingly coming to see, like parents to an awful primary school play). Her affair with Hamlet was a transgression in the opposite direction than it usually is, since inside the prison she had more social power than he did. Administrator Laertes (Darcy Vanhinsbergh) and warden Polonius (Antony Kernan) warning her off him was shaded by that implication that she was taking advantage of him, as well as potentially getting in over her head with a convicted felon.
The setting also brought out how much in the play Hamlet prefers the company of outsiders. He wants to leave Denmark for Germany; he blows off the royal family and the aristocracy to hang out with non-courtier Horatio and the palace guards; he overidentifies with Norwegian prince Fortinbras, and bonds with pirates and gravediggers. The grey prison sweats and the physical separation of bars and visiting hours really underlined that solidarity with Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus, and distance from Ophelia, Laertes and the royals.
I can’t remember what they did with the gravedigger scene but I really liked it. Ditto the line reading of “Well, well, well”. These are scrawled in my notebook with big tick marks next to them, which is how I know they were good. I do remember the excellent lighting design when Ophelia killed herself; I can practically still smell the chlorine of the institution’s swimming pool.
The only bit I didn’t feel quite came together in the prison setting was Laertes’ part in the second half. In the play it’s really Laertes, not Hamlet, who leaks the outside world into the palace, when he opens the doors to the commons and threatens to lead a popular insurgency against the royals. In Hiraeth’s production the ‘court’ world was (intentionally) much more vague than the prison, so it wasn’t clear what a crowd calling “Laertes shall be king!” meant. His fight with Hamlet was heart-in-mouth – boxing with concealed shivs – but it didn’t have the weight and feeling of tragic balance that it can have when Laertes is grounded politically as well as emotionally.
To be honest I’m not sure if that could have been brought in while keeping the prison setting, and anyway I don’t need all Shakespeare productions to nail every part of a play; I expect in a few years there will be a fringe production that’s All About Laertes and leaves the audience going ‘wait, who’s that Horatio guy?’ or something. (And I will be there every night because Laertes is the besssst.)
Anyway, now that I’ve seen two Hiraeth productions I’m a definite, committed fan, not only because they don’t seem to mind when I turn up plastered and enthusiastic. They do Shakespeare energetically and really seem to enjoy cracking apart the plays and working them over to see what happens. They’ve also got over the slightly hand-wringy hesitance some fringe companies have, of feeling like they have to justify Doing Shakespeare, King of the Dead White European Men, and so treat him distantly, gingerly or ironically. Hiraeth is more like, because he’s a genius that’s why (and he is a genius), now everybody sit down and let’s theatre.
Characters in Hiraeth productions also take their shirts off and say “Fuck” a lot, choices I strongly approve of. So I’m planning to keep going to see them. And you should too! Only you can’t see their Hamlet because it closed last month. Sorry.