Hamlet (Lazarus Theatre)

Michael Hawkey as Hamlet (with blood). Photograph taken by Charles Flint.
Photo credit: Charles Flint

What do you get if you remove the older generation from Hamlet? Lazarus Theatre’s new 90-minute production at Southwark Playhouse. The cast (dressed in identical jumpers & trackie bottoms) assemble in a circle and take orders from a disembodied voice (Micha Colombo), before introducing themselves and their character – to each other rather than the audience. You have to presume that they are in some kind of therapy session, but whether it’s in rehab, prison, or some other kind of secure unit is unclear; the setting actually becomes a little off-putting, as your brain constantly tries to piece connections together to work out how everything relates.

The concept is an interesting one, however it doesn’t make an especially coherent story. A quick thought experiment tells you that the older generation holds great importance in the telling of the story – both directly & indirectly – and so taking them away removes most of the impetus of the narrative. I’m all for reimagining or recontextualising Shakespeare (I’m not one of those bores who boycott any non-‘traditional’ productions at the Globe), but it’s of paramount importance that the concept isn’t forced onto the play – and that it still all makes sense to the viewer. This being the case, this production is probably not the best way of introducing people to this particular play; there isn’t even the upside of seeing most of the key speeches & scenes being performed, as often there’s some kind of noise blaring over the top – or the actor rushes through their lines in a bid to decrease the running time even further. Though all of this can be fine to a certain extent, as you don’t necessarily need to follow every individual word, it isn’t practical to miss quite so much dialogue in a radically cut version of the play.

A highlight of the production (as strange as it may sound) is Ophelia’s descent into madness and her eventual death. Although her trajectory is on fast-forward throughout the play – along with everyone else’s – there is just enough time for some quiet & reflection as she sings to herself and hands out her herbs. It gives the production a little bit of time to breathe following the helter-skelter nature of events leading up to this. Lexine Lee is very impressive in this scene, demonstrating Ophelia’s emotion but staying calm and not being tempted to rush through to her exit. It’s also interesting to follow her out of the room via a TV screen onstage, ultimately seeing & hearing (most of) her demise rather than it being reported back in the manner of a Greek tragedy.

The play-within-a-play (a.k.a. The Mousetrap) is an entertaining sideshow, with Juan Hernandez & Kiera Murray as the Player King & Player Queen; this production may not be as heavy and emotionally-involved as most versions of Hamlet tend to be, but it’s still good to have that light relief in there. I’m less convinced about the fight between Hamlet and Laertes being treated so lightly, as it then means the events that follow lack depth & sincerity – and the play ends as abruptly as it begins. Michael Hawkey shows great potential in the title role (especially given that this is his professional debut) and I would be interested to see how he took on the character given the opportunity in full (or less fragmented) version of the play.

Michael Hawkey as Hamlet with Company. Photograph taken by Charles Flint.
Photo credit: Charles Flint

My verdict? An ambitious attempt to rework one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays that doesn’t quite pay off – there are moments of potential throughout.

Rating: 2.5*

Hamlet runs at Southwark Playhouse until 4 February 2023. Tickets are available online and from the box office. There will be a streamed performance on 9 February 2023.

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