I once heard someone saying that if you understand The Lion King, you understand Hamlet. Frankly, my knowledge of William Shakespeare’s most quoted tragedy, completed in 1601, consists of communication with a ghost and with a skull in Denmark, and a couple of famous character names. I also realise that it’s the first indoor performance of the Bard’s oeuvre, I am seeing since middle school and, taken back by how busy it is, my first visit to the Southwark Playhouse. Much bigger than anticipated, think rough-industrial, not corporate-industrial. I could have taken a drink to my seat (Hamlet has no interval) but only remember to get one when hoards of students have taken their seats around me in hoodies, hijabs, bomber jackets, Nirvana hats, school uniforms and Crocs. Here and there the odd American accent. The young lady next to me has brought sweets in a reused marmalade jar. I recall seeing a box of free period products, at least in the gender-neutral bathroom without the urinals. Wishing other venues were that considerate, this theatre has already proven itself as a true place of community, rarely experienced that close to the busy, shiny City Of London.
Then the play begins. The cast introduces themselves and their roles which is brilliant for Hamlet newbies, especially on a stage so long, the audience must look to players from the stage like an army of Felix The Cat wall clocks, trying to follow what happens from one side to the other. Exceptionally good scenes are performed towards the finale: The staging of Hamlet’s own play The Mouse-trap, Ophelia’s beautiful song and her hand-camera witnessed backstage tour towards her doom. Further, a fencing fight. But before that, I have struggled to follow the story and the dialogs several times, too often sentences over sentences were performed with the back to the audience, too often through distorted speakers and with too much dramatized noise around the actors.
Thankful for the printed program, I finish reading it on the way home (London Bridge station is ten walking minutes down Borough High Street) and well, director Ricky Dukes notes his intention to tell a Hamlet from the young characters’ point of view through a young cast and focusing on their mental health. And he admits having dropped older characters. Therefore, the play was reduced to 90 minutes. Does that mean I only have seen half of Hamlet? I am clearly facing my own To Been Or Not Have Been dilemma. Promising myself not to fall again for the Disney joke, for someone who has not read Hamlet in school or elsewhere, this staging does not work as an introduction – but a full house on a Tuesday night is something to congratulate the Lazarus Theatre Company to. Their mission to make not only theatre in general but the big classics available to all, not matter their societal backgrounds and circumstances, is to be celebrated!
There is not a single bad seat at the Southwark Playhouse
*** out of 5 stars
Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Ricky Dukes, Hamlet played at the Southwark Playhouse until 4 February
Tickets from £22.50, concessions for local students are available