A review of Hamlet in bland verse.
Act 2, Scene 2 “Denmark’s a prison,” says
The Prince of Denmark, so the director
Of this production, Hiraeth’s Zoe Ford
Has set it in HMP Liverpool.
A short young man with slicked-back yellow hair
Is led onstage in handcuffs and then stripped.
Two men in suits shine lights in every hole,
Then issue him with grey/blue prisonwear.
No one is speaking as this all takes place.
This isn’t Shakespeare as we would expect.
No distant Danish kingdom, but instead
It’s Liverpool and now; it’s blunt and rough.
Then Hamlet starts, “Who’s there?” “Nay, answer me”
And Shakespeare’s language kicks in. I don’t know
Whether this is to be (or not to be)
Another thoughtless update – different place
And different time but all else is the same.
Act 1 allayed these fears. From Shakespeare’s text
Are found some nifty meanings that match well
The prison context, for example: “There,
A blessing with thee” as Polonius
Pulls out a wad of cash to give his son.
And what were mourning clothes, “trappings
And suits of woe”, are now prison attire.
“I have of late but wherefore I know not”
Is spoken in a therapy session
Led by Ophelia (Jessica White
Who plays the part with tenderness and ease).
The prison cell accentuates the fact
That Hamlet is an introspective man:
And now physically he is confined
As well as spiritually, so the long
Reflective monologues work well –
Since he has nothing else to do inside.
The second act shows off some fierce and raw
Fight scenes, and actors smeared with sticky blood.
The Prince is played by Adam Lawrence, who
Slides gently into madness through the show.
At times he bellows, blazing with real fire.
But, matched against the fearsome Guildenstern
And others in the cast there’s something weak,
Or gentle, or amiss in this sweet prince.
He’s piteous, yes (and that’s as it should be)
But frightening? Only intermittently.
My one big gripe is how the language jars
With lines that have been improvised to fill
The gaps between the speeches. For example,
Claudius allows Laertes’ trip to France:
“Take thy leave. [short pause] No worries son.”
But other updates and additions work,
Like Hamlet’s first night in his cell. Pitch black,
The other inmates flick their lighters on
And off, there’s ghoulish breathing all around
And childlike whimpers. Hamlet’s troubled mind
Is inside out, externalised for us,
His mental turmoil vividly laid bare.
The play has relevance and resonance
That this production emphasises well.
It seems Chris Grayling’s on a strange crusade
To singlehandedly, misguidedly
Diminish literacy in UK prisons
By banning books from being sent to inmates.
Hiraeth has hit upon an irony
As bitter as it is ridiculous:
By setting what may be the world’s most well-
Known play inside a prison they invert
The Grayling dictat. Kind of goes to show:
You can take the books out of a prison,
But you can’t take prisons out of books.
“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell
And count myself the king of infinite space.”
This line of Hamlet’s sums up this production.
The Prince, though bounded in a prison cell,
Must try to rule the boundless infinite
Of his disturbed and melancholy mind.