BWW Reviews: HAMLET FIRST QUARTO, Courtyard Theatre, May 1 2014
It's strange enough already, Hamlet First Quarto (at the Courtyard Theatre until 24 May). Shorter than the orthodox version, it includes familiar characters under unfamiliar names and, though it has many of the celebrated setpieces, they're often slightly different. It's an odd mix of the expected and unexpected, of simplification and complication, of genius and hackery. It's disorienting - but Hamlet always is!
Strange too is this production's setting - a near-future in which drones attack fleeing figures, ghosts appear on giant video screens and most people affect outfits last seen in Tron - but Shakespeare's universality is easily able to cope with being flung into a Mad Max world and Elsinore is a dystopia that can stand for all dystopias.
This world is dominated not by a vengeful Mad Max, but a vengeful Mad Hamlet (James Clifford in great form). Like an evil clown, we don't know whether to laugh at his antics or hide behind the sofa - though I favour the latter, since Hamlet's mental instability seems genuinely psychotic rather than feigned for effect. Hamlet's rage brings down all around him - even the eeriely absent Rossencraft and Gilderstone (see what I mean) - with Aimee-Lou Wood's Ophelia reduced from plucky martial arts maiden (holding her own in a couple of fights) to the broken warbling flower-flinger (the plants themselves on-screen rather than live, avoiding images of Morrissey welling up in my mind, something that usually spoils the scene for me).
Though there's plenty of dark humour throughout - poor old Yorick's head gets tossed about like a bride's posey - murder and death pervade the play, drone images popping up from time-to-time as a few more civilians get blown away. It's grim, but courts have always had their intrigues and far less heinous actions than complacent Claudius' regicide and mother-appropriation have set off far more catastrophic events. When power politics meets psychosis stirred with a little sex, things get messy - ask a Romanov. This is a play that isn't quite the real deal, but tells us much about one of Shakespeare's monuments. It works as an introduction to the orthodox version (if you haven't seen it) or as an illustration of its key themes (if you have) - and, of course, it stands in its own right. The Great Dane's bite is still worse than his bark.