The CitizensTheatre, Glasgow
19 Sep - 11 Oct
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Dominic Hill
Produced: Citizens Theatre
Cast includes: Adam Best, Cliff Burnett, Brian Ferguson, Peter Guiness, Ben Onwukwe, Roberta Taylor, Meghan Tyler
Running time: 3 hrs and 15 mins
Since Giles Havergal's production with David Hayman as the prince in 1970, Hamlet has become an important play for subsequent directorial regimes at the Citizens to establish their identity. Director Dominic Hill has already defined a distinctive style in his productions of The Libertine and Crime and Punishment, and his Hamlet follows their cues, from the melding of diverse traditions to the use of the actors as on-stage musicians. The strong cast goes some way to making this Hamlet less of a star-turn for Brian Ferguson and more of an ensemble version.
Ferguson begins the play as a weak, frightened Hamlet - hiding under the table at moments of stress and terrified of his father's ghost. As he gathers the courage to take on his usurping uncle and faithless mother, he becomes more of a violent psychopath than a renaissance avenger: his brutal assault on Ophelia and cruelty to his mother make him unsympathetic and savage.
Hill is careful to surround Hamlet with strong, clear renderings of the other characters: Peter Guinness is a superb Claudius, racked with guilt and pacing the stage like a Glasgow hard-man; his wife and queen Gertrude (Roberta Taylor) is a passive-aggressive with an alcohol problem. Cliff Burnett has fun with Polonius, bringing out his asinine stupidity until, finally, Hamlet shoots him. Hill conjures a royal family that has more than a hint of the gangster, and if he avoids making this Hamlet's tragedy, he approaches it as a dysfunctional family drama.
Collaborating with composer Nikola Kodjabashia, Hill uses the live music to sustain a dark atmosphere: the actors take up guitars, percussion, violin and keyboards - and manipulate prerecorded tapes at moments of tension: Ophelia's descent into madness becomes a raging punk number, and the melodramatic finale is abruptly ended with a tape-machine switched off.
Intruding on the naturalistic acting - and Ben Onkuwe's marvellously rich voice that recalls Olivier as the ghost and the player king - the sound design both evokes the subtext of emotional turmoil and repression that drives Hamlet and emphasises the theatricality of the production: Hill repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, as Hamlet leaps into the audience or addresses the actors from the back of the auditorium. Stage assistants openly rearrange scenery behind the actors, the dead wander between the living, Ophelia (Meghan Tyler)drowns in a bath-tub. In line with Brecht's attempts to remind the audience that they are watching a play, this Hamlet is alienating both through its self-conscious theatricality and the prince's lack of compassion.
Clearly, Hill is establishing his style: respectful of the script, yet lending it new meanings through the dynamic movements of the cast - Ophelia suggests she is pregnant by holding her stomach during her final speech, while Laertes (Adam Best) talks strategy with Claudius over a punch-bag work-out. Ben Ormerod's lighting design is stark and expressive: sudden light or darkness marks scene changes and, despite a slow start, pushes the production along at an increasing pace.
This Elsinore is undeniably brutal, the subtext of misogyny bought out in the treatment of Ophelia - Polonius' fatherly attentions have shades of sexual abuse. Stripping the last half of the military threat - and the lack of majesty displayed by all the characters - transforms the political world of the court into an incestuous, intimate horror. The suits of Claudius and Hamlet recall the Glasgow of No Mean City, the calculations of king and prince the petty paranoia of an underworld hit rather than a coup. Against this, Hill emphasises the spiritual themes - hopes of redemption in a universe that promises only death. When Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius at prayer, it only stresses his nastiness as he would not send him to death forgiven.
This is a powerful rendition of a script dulled by familiarity, allowing Dominic Hill to stand alongside his artistic ancestors as a bold, imaginative and careful director.