The Globe has a weird history with ‘Hamlet’: while it sometimes feels like Shakespeare’s greatest play is always being performed somewhere in London, at the Bankside temple of Shakespeare it’s a rare sight, more often tackled in lo-fi, low-pressure touring productions than ‘proper’ main house shows. In fact I’m reasonably certain it’s only been done twice outside of tours and festivals, in 2000 and 2018, neither production exactly keepers.
Thank the theatre gods then, for associate artistic director Sean Holmes. The former Lyric Hammersmith boss was the Globe’s star signing a few years back, and while he’s consistently done good work since, he really has gone and smashed it with this brilliantly original take on ‘Hamlet’.
He starts from the advantage of not treating the great tragedy like a celebrity vehicle. That’s not to say that it’s not based around the considerable talents of its leading man, George Fouracres, a comedian and member of last summer’s Globe ensemble. But put it this way: I’ve seen some truly momentous Hamlets in my day, from Michael Sheen to Paapa Essiedu. But none of them were ever going to play the doomed Danish prince as a psychopathic Brummie.
Holmes’s production is full of typically witty and irreverent flourishes: the interpolation of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ during the Players scene; the deployment of two Smiths songs (‘I Know It’s Over’ and ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’) as recurring motifs; Ed Gaughan’s delightfully ludicrous Gravedigger just monologuing away in modern English about telly quiz show ‘The Chase’ in lieu of the actual dialogue; Irfam Shamji’s entertainingly venal Claudius shouting ‘fuck Fortinbras!’; a rousing singalong of Kenny Rodgers’s ‘The Gambler’ deliberately drowning out the line ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’.
But ‘Hamlet’ is always about Hamlet. And Fouracres makes for a really, really interesting one. As a son of the second city, I was absolutely delighted when he first came on, laconically drawling away in my native accent, dressed in the sort of semi-goth attire one can imagine him having bought in Brum’s infamous Oasis ‘fashion store’ (to be clear, I think Fouracres is actually from Wolverhampton, but I can forgive him that). At first, he’s a seemingly affable, level-headed guy. Sure, he’s upset that his dad is dead and his mum Gertrude (Polly Frame) swiftly remarried Claudius, her late husband’s brother. And okay, he understandably finds his encounter with the twitching, aggressive spirit (Ciarán O’Brien) who claims to be his dad somewhat traumatic. But he appears to take it all in his stride. ‘To be or not to be’ is delivered gently and conversationally, matey rumination rather than lofty rhetoric, as Fouracres’s wry Hamlet stands on the end of Grace Smart’s reflecting pool set and ponders the point of the world. At first his ‘madness’ simply seems to take the form of dark humour: he acts weirdly, but it seems to be a way of dealing with the stressful situation.
Certainly he doesn’t seem like a guy who looks likely to kill anyone. Not until he does, abruptly slashing Claudius’s throat in the chapel in defiance of the text and centuries of scholarly debate. It turns out to be a fantasy: but it’s blindingly obvious Hamlet had no problem with doing the deed, enjoyed it even, and Claudius was literally only spared because he was at prayer. No such luck for John Lightbody’s toadying Polonius: during the scene where Hamlet usually stabs him by accident, it’s very apparent he both knows exactly who he’s killing, and that he’s enjoying it. From hereon Fouracres spirals terrifyingly out of control - always the measured Brummie, but also, very clearly, somebody dangerously unhinged, whose actions seem motivated by a narcissistic obsession over his mother’s remarriage rather than serious grief at his father’s death.
A wild, wild ride, that shows Fouracres to be a major star
And it’s a great reading! Hamlet does after all kill absolutely loads of people. Yes, there tend to be heavy mitigating circumstances. But as a minimum it’s legitimate to explore the possibility that he enjoys it, though one suspects it’s a reading few celebrity Hamlets would be into. Fouracres, though, is bang up for it. It’s not that his Hamlet is any less thoughtful than he was in the early scenes, or that he’s undergone any sort of abrupt character change. It’s just that we finally see the whole of Hamlet’s moral shape, the lengths that he would go to, and instead of boundaries, there is a bottomless abyss.
In the end, it doesn’t quite ‘work’. Within the context of Hamlet being the antagonist, the final scene doesn’t make much sense emotionally: after being exiled following Polonius’s killing, it’s not really clear here why Hamlet has returned to Elsinore. He’s too far gone for us to feel even slightly invested in him avenging his dad, and he doesn’t seem that bothered about doing it either. A bone-chilling delivery of the prince’s final line (‘the rest is silence’) aside, it feels like a bit of a conceptual non-event - a bunch of people die and the story ends, but it almost feels like a coda to a play that peaked when the depths of Hamlet’s evil were revealed after Polonius’s brutal murder.
Still, I feel like Holmes probably knows it doesn’t quite click, and it’s why he pulls out all the stops to make the last section inordinately entertaining, with Gaughan’s scene-stealing routine as the Gravedigger effectively preempting any notion that we should be taking this too seriously.
This ‘Hamlet’ is a wild, wild ride, that shows Fouracres to be a major star in the making and Holmes to finally be hitting the form at the Globe that he did at the Lyric. It’s ‘Hamlet’, but funnier, scarier and more daring than you’ve seen it before.