Southwark Playhouse – until 4 February 2023
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Let’s face it – a 100 minute Hamlet is going to upset Shakespeare purists, but Lazarus never shy away from exploring and interpreting classic plays in their own contemporary, sometimes challenging, style.
Lazarus’s Hamlet began as an actor in training production, and it hasn’t lost that raw edge as designer Sorcha Corcoran’s Elsinore is a performance space that could be a drama studio, therapy room or gym. Director Ricky Dukes has dispensed with the adults in his adaptation, leaving only the younger characters in the spotlight. This obviously leaves huge chunks of plot – and plotting – out of the play, but Dukes has form using a disembodied voice of authority to stop characters in their tracks and inserts vital information and orders from Claudius or Gertrude using Micha Colombo’s vocal skills. Familiarity with Hamlet will either annoy or help audience members follow the plot, but this pacy production tells the story with an undeniable freshness and energy that it serves as an intriguing introduction to Shakespeare that could act as a gateway into classic plays for new audiences.
Summoned by a bell, the cast assemble in a circle around a microphone and are asked who will begin, before introducing themselves and the characters they play. When it is Michael Hawkey’s turn to introduce himself as Hamlet the cast scatter and they begin the play. The cast’s reactions to the bell, and their stance as they freeze, looking up to the ceiling as they listen to and converse with Micha Colombo’s mysterious voice, creates a disconcerting power dynamic and sense of subjugation, raising lots of intriguing questions and possibilities to mull over after the performance. Stuart Glover’s lighting and Jovana Backovic’s sound design are bold and brash, perfect for this production. The characters use torches and fight to be heard over a giant fan at times, but it all fits together to keep the audience slightly on edge and never comfortable with what they are watching. We certainly had lots of conflicting ideas but came back to one (although we may have been influenced by our love of schlocky TV shows!). The cast are all dressed in what could be a team or institutional uniform, and instantly comply with the voice and the bell – so could this be part of a young offenders or psychiatric programme? The way the play ends makes it seem as if this therapy/punishment has been repeated many times and the characters are revisiting/trying to change their reactions to the voice’s manipulations in a twisted Squid Games style experiment. Whatever the intention – any play that can make people argue that much is worth the ticket price.
Although the sensitivity and tenderness of some scenes are lost in the dizzying pace of the production, the tone throughout is consistent, with every character appearing and acting like a teenager trying to navigate a brutal, unforgiving and confusing world. Polonius’s accidental murder just about makes sense, but the idea that Hamlet could be capable of random violence at that point rings true regardless. Michael Hawkey’s Hamlet is stroppy and showy at first, but the insecurity and instability emerges gradually to replace the early showy mask of ladishness Hamlet employs. An impressive professional debut. Lexine Lee as Ophelia portrays a quiet and dignified descent into despair, hauntingly capturing the almost serene determination once she has decided to kill herself (in a beautifully stark scene filmed parading through the corridors of the Playhouse.) The wonderful Kalifa Taylor gives the most traditional rendition of Shakespeare as the first player performing for Hamlet, nicely contrasting the more natural choices of the cast with our ideas of what Shakespeare should sound like. The Mousetrap is played for laughs in broad physical comedy and a stream of tortured rhymes by Kiera Murray and Juan Hernandez – a welcome chance to catch a breath and have fun amongst all the angst. The young cast all impress, and their ensemble work as the voice of Hamlet’s father is wonderfully atmospheric.
Lazarus’s Hamlet is mean, moody and very modern – an exhilarating and intriguing adaptation with an exciting young cast.