Probably William Shakespeare’s most famous play and possibly his greatest, Hamlet has long been a target for comedy. Tom Stoppard’s 15 Minute Hamlet (1976) set the bar rather high on that score. Bloody Bawdy Villains, a Berlin-based company of three clown actors, get around this potential problem by tackling the play from the other side. Their Hamlet? is a piece about how they are going to put on the play, but don’t expect navel-gazing self-reflexivity. The clue is in the company’s title: the humour is bawdy and physical, and will not be to everyone’s taste (somebody left the performance I attended). It is also frequently hilarious. Prior knowledge of the play may be advantageous but is certainly not necessary.
The theatrical jokes come thick and fast
At the start of the show the performers stand on stage in a line, in front of a board displaying all the scenes in the play, and all the characters, and proceed to harangue the audience ‘balloon debate’ style, each putting his or her case as to why he, or she, should play Hamlet. Damien Warren-Smith should not, says Nicole Ratjen, because in Brighton 'nobody wants to see Hamlet played by a straight white male.' Ela Cosen makes her bid for the role by claiming to be able to do it in six different languages (and by the end of the show we believe her). In the end, the audience decides who gets the role (apparently). What follows is an ever-escalating exercise in upstaging. Whichever unfortunate performer happens to be playing Hamlet at any given moment (as the show progresses, they all take a turn), he or she is thoroughly upstaged by one or more of the others performing any number of ridiculous activities. These range from ‘accidentally’ dropping an enormous box of ping-pong balls on to the stage, to a hilarious all-female fight between two semi-clad non-Hamlets. This is extreme physical comedy performed with brilliant timing and a great sense of the ridiculous. Here are three very gifted comedy actor/performers working together perfectly.
However, the show takes a while to properly hit its stride, and predictably, some portions work better than others. It seems churlish to pick out one moment from a show in which the theatrical jokes come thick and fast, but Cosen (as the mad Ophelia) dressing Ratjen in a seemingly never-ending series of bikini bras (yes, you’ve guessed it – to play Fortinbras) may well get my vote for Pythonesque silliness. And of course, the show inevitably ends with a certain amount of nakedness. Hamlet? is perfect Fringe fodder, and deservedly received a wildly enthusiastic ovation at its conclusion - because we all knew we had seen a class act.