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Hamlet at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – review

The production marks the first time Hamlet has been staged indoors at Shakespeare's Globe

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Irfan Shamji as Claudius, George Fouracres as Hamlet
© Johan Persson

Sean Holmes' new production of Hamlet, a play he says he fell in love with when helping his daughter with her studies, mixes melodrama and Morrissey to surprisingly good effect.

In the title role, George Fouracres is a brooding, Doc Marten-sporting emo surrounded by stuffed ruffs. It's a fine interpretation, infused with humour but no shortage of threat. His Brummie accent works wonders with the poetry, while his continual cajoling of the audience is extremely persuasive. "Am I a coward?" he asks us, repeating it so we have to respond. Then, when someone inevitably shouts ‘yes', he follows up accusingly: "Who calls me villain?""

Other sections do away with Shakespeare entirely. The gravedigger (Ed Gaughan) starts telling an anecdote about someone from The Chase, while in a nice meta touch the Players perform snippets from Romeo and Juliet. There's a bawdiness that makes this a thoroughly entertaining, at times almost pantomimic Hamlet.

But that's not to say there isn't darkness in it too. Holmes, who turned A Midsummer Night's Dream into Mardi Gras with the same ensemble, uses the candlelit confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to create an atmosphere of brooding menace. Shadows are everywhere, as are ghosts, notably that of Hamlet's father (Ciarán O'Brien), here rendered as a topless, leather-skirted warlord not so much asking for his murder to be avenged as demanding it. There's an implication that Hamlet acts not just out of love but out of fear. He scrawls on the back wall as if to remind himself of the task at hand.

Irfan Shamji as Claudius, John Lightbody as Polonius
© Johan Persson

Grace Smart's set features a circular pond at its centre, which is used variously as a meeting point, a place to conceal weapons and an allegory. Hamlet delivers ‘To be or not to be' whilst standing on its edge, contemplating the abyss. Later, it neatly becomes the grave of Ophelia. Water is liberally splashed around - such as when Hamlet ironically blesses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Francesca Henry and O'Brien) – and used to wash the copious amounts of blood that follows the murder of Polonius (John Lightbody).

Among the support there are eye-catching turns from Rachel Hannah Clarke as Ophelia, whose haunting song opens the evening, and Polly Frame, whose Gertrude goes full soap opera towards the latter stages, swigging champagne and heckling during the climactic duel. Lightbody's Polonius is enjoyably foppish, a larger-than-life contrast to the strait-laced Claudius of Irfan Shamji, who comes across as a man stewed in his own guilt.

Music is everywhere, accompanied by Ed Gaughan, an ever-present chorus with his guitar. The songs are appropriately matched, whether Hamlet's regular refrain of The Smiths' "Bigmouth Strikes Again" ("now I know how Joan of Arc felt") or Ophelia's ironic twerking to Diana King's "Shy Guy" ("Oh Lord have mercy mercy mercy").

It's an interesting time to be staging Hamlet, with its themes of corruption and denial of guilt. And this playful production – fans of Holmes' work with Filter will find much to enjoy – highlights just how much levity there is alongside the tragedy. Fouracres is a Dane who shows, much like Morrissey, that genius and madness are wholly entwined.

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