Bussey Building, London – until 27 February 2016
What happens when a director completely disregards age, gender and nationality in a Shakespeare production, then stages it in a former cricket bat factory with a stripped-back aesthetic and fantastic performers? Shakespeare Peckham. Founded by actor/director/producer Anthony Green, Hamlet Peckham bears more resemblance to the vibrancy and gender bending of Shakespeare’s original productions than most modern conceptual interpretations. Green incorporates several aspects of original practice, which prove that embracing the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatre with a fearless cast is a winning combination.
There are a few concepts that Green adds, such as casting three actors as Hamlet to highlight “the problem, the plan and the solution” of Hamlet’s narrative. He also empowers Polonius, making the father of Laertes and Ophelia the strongest character in the play. There’s loads of direct address and audience interaction, as there was in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and as there should always be. The ghost is just a man rather than ethereal or otherworldly, and when Hamlet is played by a woman, he changes all gender pronouns to “she” and “her.”
These choices, proving Green’s instinct for excellent theatre and Shakespeare performance, either work well or, at the very least, don’t not work. The only one of these approaches that jars is the textual changes according to gender, but it will have little impact on a viewer who doesn’t know the play well.
The Bussey Building, here configured with the audience on three sides, also has three slender poles along the front of the stage. Though their position prohibits the curving movement that the Globe’s pillars creates, the actors use them – as supports, to hide behind and to propel them. Sight lines are occasionally blocked, but never for long. There is no backstage, so the actors hang out in the dark behind the audience. No feature of this space goes unused, though there are no specific adaptations that warrant the addition of “Peckham” to the show title. This isn’t a site-specific production, but it is certainly wonderfully site-responsive as well as being sensitive to the audience’s energy. Set designer Michael Leopold and lighting designer Adam King create a subtle, harmonising impact on the space with wooden crates, white curtains and colour. The actors’ black and white contemporary costumes looks like their own clothing, but rather than appearing cheap, it comes across as relaxed and accessible.
The cast is phenomenal. Nine of them take on all roles, with only a few not doubling, tripling or more. It’s impossible to chose a few standout performances, but the three Hamlets (Sharon Singh, Max Calandrew and Izabella Urbanowicz) seamlessly blend their interpretations whilst making each moment their own. Gil Sutherland as Polonius is the driving force behind manipulative Claudius (Pete Collis), Daniel Rusteau is a warm, grounded Horatio. Eva Savage is half a dozen characters, particularly excelling as the joyful singing gravedigger. As a whole, they are a well-oiled, energetic and charismatic bunch who have the talent for the world’s biggest stages. Working with Green, each moment is crafted with care and detail, but the effort only shows in the performers’ ease.
Both progressive and ancient, Hamlet Peckham is what contemporary Shakespeare should be – striving for equality in cast and crew, respecting core performance techniques from original Shakespearian theatre practice, and a relaxed, flexible concept that focuses on telling the story with passion and muscularity. This production creates opportunities, showcases great talent and tells Shakespeare’s story with all the energy and life of new play. Don’t miss it.
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