Hamlet House of Horror
¹ gives a cabaret-like spin on Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, with the heavily edited text interspersed with songs written by Addison Axe (also playing Gertred,) Max Barton (also the Ghost and providing music and sound effects) and Chris Barton (also adaptor/director) and performed by the cast. The "horror" theme is mainly seen in the striking character designs (by Dee Shulman) as the cast wear evening dress and grotesque face makeup - here's Louis Lunts as Hamlet to give you an idea:
For an added dose of unfamiliarity, Barton has used as his source text the Bad Quarto of Hamlet
- apart from some altered character names, the biggest clue is in the very different version of "To be, or not to be" used, although I was surprised at how many other differences in text I could pick out; I guess that's what happens when you've seen this play as often as I have. This is a very different take on a familiar story, with a lot of nice touches for people who know the play, less so for those a bit hazy on the story (which means that some critic, somewhere, has definitely
described it as "ideal for newcomers to Shakespeare" because they always do when I consider it not to be) as events are rather raced through by an excellent cast. Lunts is a slight Hamlet but a bit of a brawler from the start (something that pays off later,) George Rowell a slimy Claudius and Max Barton, helped by the makeup and some torchlight, a particularly ghoulish ghost. A lot of different styles get thrown into the mix; as well as stopping every so often for a curiously cheery song (often on banjo) about damnation or the desire to kill, we have Hamlet and Ophelia conversing via text message², and a silent rendering of the play-within-a-play with actors (Genevieve Turner-Moss, looking uncannily like Siouxsie Sioux, and Jack Cook) used as puppets.
The downside of this approach is that a few too many different styles are employed, not all of them fitting in too well. Notably in the Gravedigger scene, Katy Bulmer (also playing Corambis - usually known as Polonius - in Bride of Frankenstein hair) dispenses with Shakespeare entirely to perform her own material. It's actually very funny, recasting the First Gravedigger as a necrophiliac, but as the only other glaring departure from Elizabethan English was right at the start, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Her performance would be well-suited to a Shakespearean review show, but here feels awkwardly as if she's taken the opportunity to try out some of her standup in the middle of someone else's show. (Ironically, I'm using my new "skull" theatrical avatar for the first time for a production that omits the Yorick speech.) I also had mixed feelings about Hamlet's final swordfight with Leartes (Ed Cherrie) which is here turned into a topless wrestling match. It's audacious and dispenses with a lot of complicated plotting (and the three regular readers will have taken the word "topless" as a subtle hint that I approve) but it means the entire finale is played out in dumbshow, including the deaths. It seemed a shame to rob Lunts of his chance to end on "the rest is silence" (or whatever his last line is in the Bad Quarto.) And another gripe in the unneccessary interval - even with it the show's just over 90 minutes, and played through would have suited the piece's energy better. Plus intervals should really be avoided if possible at this theatre, given how hard it is to get in and out of your seat (knowing how jamesofdoom
feels about the Finborough's policy of overselling, I would advise him to steer clear of the Old Red Lion - if that pesky force of gravity would only comply, they'd seat people on the ceiling.)
Still, as you can probably tell this was overall a hit with me, its main failing being that sometimes the creatives try a few too many gimmicks that don't always gel. Also, for the second night in a row, some very well-done fight scenes (the choreographer is Peter Chequer) in a tiny space. Another thing I liked about the makeup is the fact that it so visibly deteriorates as the actors' sweat makes it wash off³ - I've often said I like sets and costumes that degrade before your very eyes as the show goes on, and here is a way for it to happen to the actors' faces as well. Overall, recommended for fans of the original play, and people unfamiliar with it would probably enjoy it hugely as well (although they'd probably struggle to give you a synopsis of the story afterwards.)Hamlet House of Horror
by William Shakespeare, Chris Barton, Max Barton, Addison Axe and Katy Bulmer is booking until the 28th of August at the Old Red Lion Theatre.
¹for the benefit of Americans and other aliens: The title is a pun on Hammer House of Horror
, a TV series from the famous horror film studio Hammer, responsible for many a Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Dracula
movie. Those Daniel Radcliffe fans reading this will, if they weren't aware of it before, have heard of the studio because of its upcoming relaunch.
²in another bit of praise for director Chris Barton, he successfully has them drop the gimmick just
before it gets annoying.
³although the makeup is reapplied in the interval - onstage! While this was probably more due to necessity and a lack of backstage space, it does nicely fit in with the production's unconcealed artifice.