Following Maxine Peake’s short-back-and-sides turn in Manchester last year, English Repertory Theatre stages its own gender-blind casting of the Shakespeare’s brooding young prince. This time the role of the Bard’s great Dane goes to 26-year-old actress Rachel Waring, whose tousled black hair reminds of a slightly goth Harry Styles.
Which makes sense, because it’s moody teenagers all the way in Gavin Davis’s slimmed-down and sped-up version of the play. He dispenses with Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, cuts out Guildenstern and the players, and sets the action in a kind of privileged school where the queen and king seem to be the headmaster and his wife (it’s not entirely clear) and Hamlet their misbehaving son/nephew. Horatio is a helpless tutor, Polonious an interfering drama teacher and Laertes, Ophelia and Rosencrantz are Hamlet’s fellow students. Yorick makes a brief appearance as a skeleton in their biology classroom.
Occasionally the conceit really works. Hamlet’s madness at his father’s death and his mother’s decision to marry his uncle makes sense as a teen tantrum. His scenes with Polonious become the brainy kid running rings around an oblivious teacher – ‘God he’s such a dick’ Waring’s eyes say. But the nuance of Hamlet’s journey is often steamrollered by the text’s cuts and we lose the progression he makes from antsy teen to killer. Other elements jar – like where are the rest of the pupils? Why are most of the teachers also parents? And why on earth do Hamlet’s mum and stepdad keep being called king and queen?
Waring holds this production and the idea behind it together; she is clear, passionate and full of snarky, sarky bite. The restlessness, the unhappiness, the sense of betrayal: it’s all there bubbling beneath her angry young man surface. She swings on her chair, throws stuff around and makes eyes at Ophelia. Davis, who also directs, says he cast a women in a male role because, well, why not if she’s good enough? And in the case of Waring, she is.
If only the overall production was infused with as much school sucks, ‘Heartbreak High’ attitude as Waring’s performance. That would have been a lesson I’d have readily paid attention to.