There are time when you wonder, “Why?” Lazarus Theatre Company’s Hamlet at the Southwark Playhouse, Borough, is one of those. Why does one of the Bard’s greatest, most thrilling plays, full of grand speeches and lyrical poetry have some of it’s main characters removed and be hacked to pieces so that only a partial story remains, then to be rushed through to fit a hundred minute slot? The company has a rational behind this carnage, so in fairness let’s give them the first word.
Hacked to pieces so that only a partial story remains
Their aim is to ‘embark on a new and radical transformation (that)... will champion exciting young talent, many making their debuts, in this raucous rendition… Thrown into an urban community of lost teenagers’. Furthermore, ‘This classic tale, with its violent twists of physical and mental intensity, archaic script and intricate personalities, is reworked into a strikingly unpredictable, visceral and contemporary show’. It also comes with the assurance that, ‘For audiences who think they know Hamlet, this cast of young talent will inject an enticing, raw, and gutsy interpretation into one of the most iconic Shakespeare plays, revitalising the suspense and shock of the Elizabethan tragedy and offering an all-new experience of Hamlet.
All of this sounds thrilling and inviting. Elements of it are also indisputable. Lazarus Theatre Company is committed to ensemble work and a collaborative approach to creating radical reinterpretations of classical works. Those elements are evident from the outset. The obviously young cast (they are probably all in their early twenties) gather in a circle on blue plastic chairs. Reluctantly the first actor takes the mic from the stand, introduces himself nad the part he plays and adds a line of verse. He passes the mic to the next person, who repeats the format until everyone is introduced. This, along with the rest of the play, is also live-streamed onto a large TV screen stage left for us to view. Three other screens will be used for effects later on. This prologue features in a truncated form at the of the play. In both cases It’s an interesting exercise but hardly essential to the production or furtherance of the plot.
As this is a version of Hamlet for ‘young talent’, all older characters have been expunged from the performance, which creates some storytelling difficulties and eliminates some key scenes, which are covered only by implication from what remains of the text. In these circumstances Sam Morris as Laertes nevertheless does a commendable job lamenting the death and defending the reputation of his unseen father, Polonius, who has been removed from the dramatis personae. Michael Hawkey, in his professional debut, similarly copes well with an absent mother and father-in-law uncle. Despite being orphaned, his Hamlet dominates this production, with perhaps more lines than the rest of the cast put together. He seems always to be on stage, often charging around like a man possessed, making quick-fire exits and entrances and rattling off lines at the pace of a Gatling gun. Some of the lines land but many are lost in the heat of delivery along with any sense of poetry and verse form. As per the above promise, however, his perfromance is certainly ‘raw, and gutsy’.
Much is made of the scenes on the ramparts of Elsinore (if that’s where we are), with Bernardo, now Barnarda, (Kiera Murray), Marcellus (Juan Hernandez) and the ghost who appears in a black cloak and helmet akin to Darth Veda. This add to the darkness of the night, necessitating the predictable, hand-held torches that beam light into the scene and illuminate the characters. Similar prominence is given to the band of players and The Mousetrap, perhaps because these can all be youngsters. Kalifa Taylor recites eloquently in leading this troupe and is an example of how when given the chance to show their talents individuals do well. In between these major scenes are snippets from other parts of the play and various speeches. Alex Zur has a commanding presence and clarity of voice. It would have been a joy to hear more from him as Horatio, but he fell victim to cuts.
Director Ricky Dukes created a delightful scene of potted plants, flowers and herbs for Lexine Lee, also making her professional debut, to distribute to characters around the stage in her well-delivered Ophelia speech. Thereafter we have a hand-held camera pursuing her through the corridors backstage, or wherever, to her demise, relayed on the big screen. This was then played back in reverse before the cast reassembled to conclude the play. Make of that what you will.
It as certainly an ‘all-new experience’, but it’s hard to see how this treatment in any way makes it more ‘contemporary’. There is arguably far less ‘suspense and shock’ in this version than is found in the original, which is a pity given the talent Lazarus Theatre Company possesses.