Hiraeth Artistic Productions’ adaptation of Hamlet at Riverside Studios in Londonis an imaginative and fresh exploration of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Its premise is simple: Denmark is a literal prison in which Hamlet, now a son of a fallen crime lord, is incarcerated, most probably due to machinations of his uncle, a new kingpin of a nameless illicit organisation in Liverpool’s Irish community. The execution of the gaol on-stage concept is clever and effortless thanks to the flexible and minimalistic stage design by Anna Reid consisting of three sets of prison bars, in addition to a table, few chairs and a TV set.
The beginning of Zoe Ford’s staging of Hamlet employs a lucid visual language to set the context of the story relocated to a Liverpool jail. Young Hamlet arrives handcuffed and afterwards he is duly ‘processed’ which entails a thorough, demeaning strip search and giving up all his personal possessions. Few words are exchanged and none of them are from Shakespeare’s play. Ophelia as a psychiatric nurse is hovering anxiously, awaiting her turn to deal with the new arrival. A quick hug and a kiss exchanged between her and Hamlet show that these two have a history together.
As with her previous production of Titus Andronicus, Ford creates in her adaptation of Hamlet a liminal world with a distinct subculture. All characters belong to a criminal world including Polonius who is a duplicitous prison director controlled by Claudius, allowing the new head of organised crime to extend his rule to all the shenanigans and goings-on in jail. No wonder that Claudius has no trouble to arrange for two crooks, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet or order a beating of Horatio.
The young cast of Ford’s Hamlet really impresses not only because of skilful physical acting, including thrilling fight scenes choreographed by the fight coach, Josh Jeffries, but also because they create with ease the atmosphere of menace and malevolence in the adrenaline fuelled situations. The sense of danger is always present as feuds and brawls break out constantly in the confined space populated by incarcerated angry young men such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (superbly audacious Nathan Whitfield and Christopher York) who are always looking for a fight.
Adam Lawrence is a charming, cocky and smart Hamlet who seems almost out of place among his fellow convicts whose reaction to his ponderous line ‘man delights not me’ is a curt retort ‘that is gay, man’. Jessica White offers an unusual and nuanced portrayal of Ophelia as a tender companion who is thoroughly cognizant of Hamlet’s situation which soon leads to her nervous breakdown and apparent suicide.
Ford’s treatment of Shakespeare’s text resulted in a compromise between making modernisations and keeping the integrity of her Shakespearean source. The director decided to mine Hamlet’s text for all the passages that would stand out in the reality of prison life. For example, Claudius’s critique of Hamlet’s ‘unmanly grief’ is a way of asserting himself as an alpha male and serves as a proof of Hamlet’s unsuitability to be in the position of power in a criminal organisation. Wimps do not become kingpins in Claudius’s book.
Hiraeth Artistic Productions’ staging of Hamlet is a valiant dramaturgical effort showing that its director Zoe Ford is one to watch. Her adaptation of Hamlet is well worth a visit to Riverside Studios, especially if you wish to experience Shakespeare from an entirely different perspective with a pinch of anarchical spirit.