George Fouracres, best known as a comic, recently appeared on the Globe’s stage as Twelfth Night’s Andrew Aguecheek in a piece of exquisite casting. He returns as the avenging prince Hamlet, again under Sean Holmes’s direction, but this is not the Dane or the drama as we know it. It is Hamlet: The Comedy, or a “farcical-dramatical” as Polonius might say, with plenty of quizzical thrown in.
Fouracres’s Hamlet is a modern-day Morrissey-singing indie-type stuck inside a period-dress court and speaks in a Black Country accent (Fouracres’ own). Sometimes he japes or raves, occasionally he verges on tears. That is all good and well, but Fouracres also flattens the poetry and rhythm in his character’s magnificent soliloquies, deliberately it seems, speaking them slowly, simplifying them so they sound almost like modern demotic. He also mines his character’s suicidal angst for laughs. This is entertaining – albeit strange, too – but sucks the tragedy out of the play.
Fouracres performs with an easy confidence but it seems like pastiche and his antic disposition is flip and wacky without carrying in its pretence a genuine anger and mental upset. The most profound moments – his soliloquies, his ruminations on Gertrude’s hasty marriage and his confrontation with her after Polonius’s death – feel deflated as a result.
As an idea, there is great chutzpah in this production and some of it works: Irfan Shamji’s Claudius appears in stripes, like a court jester, and his giggling, giddy dance with Gertrude (Polly Frame, also convincing) in their first scene shows them to be irresponsible, amoral fun-lovers.
Anna Watson’s gothic lighting throws big shadows across the walls and the play gradually turns darker after Polonius (well played by John Lightbody) is killed. Ed Gaughan’s score goes from breezy to creepy, with uneasy sounds plucked from an electric guitar.
When the comedy momentarily ebbs and characters perform straight-faced, such as Claudius’s prayer scene and Hamlet’s sudden tears just before the dumb show, there are sparks of real tragedy which might have been powerful, if sustained.
But it feels like confection because the things that make Hamlet a tragedy and give it emotional intensity are not there – or not for long enough – and we never get beyond the novelty value of the central “comic” idea, which hangs like an ill-fitting coat.
The play’s existential depths are not plumbed and neither do we buy into the pain and passion of Hamlet’s romance with Ophelia (Rachel Hannah Clarke). There is no chemistry between them, and when she unravels she appears in modern dress and encourages a sing-along moment in the auditorium. It is an amusing twist, but her character lacks a unified vision. A gender-swapped Laertes (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) is underpowered in grief and does not bring enough tension to the final duel.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Ciarán O’Brien) seems like an evil creature when he appears in Gertrude’s bedroom, almost drowning young Hamlet in the set’s small, central pool (nifty design by Grace Smart), which does not cohere with the ghost as a force of moral rectitude in this rotten court.
Maybe what is needed with a vision as left-field as this is tautness, but the pace is baggy, the laughs lukewarm and the drama drags. Just when we think we have made it to the gravedigger scene, Gaughan delivers a prolonged skit in which he unpicks its meanings. The production begins to show its intention to reach a younger audience here, explaining the joke about Hamlet’s banishment to England (“The subtext of this bit is that all English people are mad” says Gaughan).
Is this, then, a Hamlet desperate to appeal to young audiences? It is certainly a fittingly counterintuitive follow-up to the Globe’s anti-romance Romeo and Juliet, directed last year by Ola Ince. Maybe some will celebrate its fun and daring and there is entertainment in it. But it seems too confusing a melange of comedy and gothic horror with other Shakespearean cross-references thrown in (Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and a fleeting impersonation of Richard III). It never quite arrives at tragedy and is, in the end, hoist with its own petard.