Southwark Playhouse (Borough), London – until 4 February 2023
Lazarus Theatre, and their artistic director Ricky Dukes, specialise in introducing classic plays to new audiences with younger performers. Over 16 years they have presented a remarkable range of shows, from Greek tragedy and Jacobean revenge to Marlowe, Wilde, Brecht and, of course Shakespeare – but never Hamlet. Dukes admits to shying away from a play with such a weighty history until he found a way to think about it differently.
Lazarus’ production at the Southwark Playhouse (Borough Road branch) strips the older generation from the play, leaving us with only the younger characters. Battered, used and confused, the play reveals how focusing on their experience can show us a familiar text in a new and disturbing light. Hamlet is, among many other things, a tale of an older generation destroying their successors to serve themselves.
The cast has varying levels of experience, but all are at the start of their careers and some are making their professional debuts. Not least among these is Michael Hawkey, doing so in the role of Hamlet: rather like learning to drive by just closing your eyes and flooring it. Fortunately, director Dukes knows what he is doing. Hawkey is more than up to the challenge and, although the play is cut down to 95 minutes, he is in charge of the stage and his presence is persuasive and changeable.
As the play begins he is a student from a wealthy background down from university (Wittenburg as Durham, perhaps), with a moneyed assurance that hardens into a dismissiveness towards others, especially Ophelia which, whether feigned or not, comes easily to him. At the same time there is comedy, with the players for example thoroughly unimpressed at being told how to do their jobs by a posh bloke, with Hawkey even hinting in the direction of the Duke of Sussex. His performance is moving because, as a young man with limited experience of life, he is so easily used by others while imagining he is in control.
Dukes’ experiment in restructuring Hamlet leaves us with a core selection of scenes that prove to be the keys to the play, in which younger characters deal with the consequences of the way their parents and rulers behave. It is an original and fascinating take on the play. The action opens with a therapy group, wearing matching blue jumpers and sitting in a circle of chairs, taking turns to explain their troubles.
Without the oldies, the cast consists of Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, Marcellus, Barnarda [sic], Rozencrantz [sic], Gildenstern [sic] and the three players. Hamlet starts to tell his story, informed by a God-like voice off which occasionally speaks lines belonging to the older characters, that this is a ‘safe space’. It immediately becomes apparent that Elsinore is in fact an intimidating and brutal space. However, none of the characters that remain in the play are to blame for the bloody events that will see almost all of them dead before the play is over. It is their parents’ fault.
The show, with a minimal setting by Sorcha Corcoran consisting mostly of plastic chairs, is full of inventive staging and moments that make great use of limited resources. The ghost of Hamlet’s father stalking through torch beams, face obscured by a full helmet, is genuinely alarming. Yorick’s skull is illuminated in a drinks fridge, possibly borrowed from the bar. The players deliver ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ with glee, wearing paper crowns and ruffs. The players scene takes on a new significance as, surprisingly, the First Player’s account of the death of Priam becomes the centrepoint of the play. Everything stops as she delivers her speech which, shorn of interjections from Polonius, becomes mesmerising in a way that I have never seen in a production of Hamlet. Partly a result of Dukes’ ingenious rebalancing of the play, it is also a tribute to Kalifa Taylor, whose performance as the First Player threatens to steal the play, and marks her out as someone to keep a close eye on. Lexine Lee as Ophelia, Sam Morris as Laertes and Kiera Murray as Barnarda and the Player Queen also stand out.
There a couple of jarring moments where the text has been unhelpfully hacked. Hamlet is “not as mad as you think” rather than able to “tell a hawk from a handsaw”. When he hesitates over killing Claudius, saying “Now might I do it”, but not “pat”. There are also moments when a previous knowledge of the play is probably needed to fully appreciate what is going on, not least in the final scene where the duel sequence, minus Claudius and Gertrude, is a little hard to follow. However, these are minor criticisms of what is a fresh, clever and exciting production from a company who specialise in seeing things differently, and showing us how to look again at plays we think we already know.