Shakespeare’s most psychological play is modernised effectively by James Watt’s visceral and intense production at the O’ Reilly Theatre, rich with psychological insight into its preoccupation with the perversities of Hamlet’s obsessions. Directed by James Watts, this is an ominous and cinematic production brought to life by its aesthetic of sullied purity and its expert manipulation of light and shadow.
Watt’s production is so successful because it revels in character psychology, literalising the implied neuroses of Shakespeare’s characters to brilliant effect, particularly in Ieuan Perkins’ eerily childish Hamlet, whose infantile tears and tantrums emphasise the Oedipal undertones of the source material. One of the most powerful scenes of the play is Hamlet’s confrontation of Gertrude in her bedroom, represented by a single dirtied mattress, and in which Perkins plays a son who so closely polices his mother’s sex life through the perverse sexual intensity which underlines the violence that Perkins’ Hamlet enacts upon her. Indeed, Hamlet’s misogyny is played up, making Shakespeare’s uncertain tragic hero refreshingly unsympathetic in the violent cruelties he inflicts on both his mother and a fantastically unpredictable Ophelia, who is played with an intense fragility by Ellie Lowenthal. Lowenthal’s Ophelia has a vulnerable psychotic quality – both angry (recognising her unjust treatment), and weirdly hypersensual, showing an uncomfortable intimacy with her brother which negotiates with the play’s thematics of broken families.
The play is animated by the framing use of light and shadow throughout, intensifying the darkness of Elsinore, the intensity of Hamlet’s soliloquies, and the ghostly shadows of the play’s opening scenes. Watt’s Elsinore is characterised by death, decay, and disintegration, with a stage framed by muddied white sheets; the imagery of dirt and mud pervades a production so concerned with both death and purity. The grave digger scene is a shining example of the production’s use of stage design to reflect the play’s tropes of death and decay. The cinematic, urgent soundtrack vitalises the dramatic tension, which, coupled with a kind of cynical humour, is deeply engaging without disrupting the play’s most tense moments. A less successful directorial decision was that to make Horatio female, apparently in order to emphasise this character’s intimacy with Hamlet, and perhaps a conscious decision to ‘make Hamlet straight’ as it were, which doesn’t detract from the production but certainly doesn’t add anything to the play or challenge its gender politics.
This is an expertly handled, impactful production; its cast’s energy animates what is an iconic play vulnerable to tired and clichéd treatment in less capable hands. Perkins’ Hamlet is a particular highlight, his violent mourning and childlike temper revitalising Shakespeare’s most iconic figure. Perkins’ emotional intensity epitomises the production’s dynamic viscerality, accessing its source material’s grief with a refreshing cynicism and underlying humour which is deeply enjoyable to observe.
Image// Daniel Cunniffe