I’d somewhat fallen out of love with the Tiger Lillies (see here) but when someone mentioned they were doing Hamlet at the @southbankcentre I just knew it was going to be either brilliant or …… awful.
It was the former. Totally and utterly.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Hamlet – it’s probably my favourite Shakespeare – but no production has ever created a world so rank and unprofitable as that which I’ve seen tonight.
The tale unfolds through slowly developing , disturbing, even operatic images one after another – an off kilter dining table, a pair of floating lovers, a giant rat of a Polonius with clumsy, encompassing arms , a bedrope walking love-forsaken Ophelia. This Elsinore is the very stuff of nightmares – voices cry out in the dark, heads seemingly bereft of bodies hang from windows. It’s inhabitants are grotesque and it’s soundtrack is peppered by high pitched shrieks. This is a fragile world where walls have ears, painted faces peer out from every gap and crevice, corridors are populated by shady half lit characters and make even the slightest false step then the very walls themselves collapse in upon you. As an audience member you feel trapped within a crazed B movie.
Through it all struts Martyn Jacques– cris crossing the stage as if he owns the place. At times he acts both as narrator and internal voice of Hamlet but really his main function is as puppet master and pimp – a role in which he oversees his characters demise with a satisfactory smugness. Throughout Shakespeare’s memorable lines weave in and around Jaques own disturbing lyrics. They compete with each other for attention. When Jacques declares ‘it’s just a dream’ frankly you simply don’t believe him.
This is all familiar territory for the Tiger Lillies. For the man who taught himself singing above a brothel death, disease, revenge and a shady underworld is fertile territory. So the decision of the intriguing Republique Theatre Company of Copenhagen to work with the ‘surrealist pornographic’ Lillies to create the strangely ambigious atmosphere of Hamlet makes total sense. The combined vision of Jacques and Martin Tulison (ad of Republiqe) is utterly beguiling.
That said the piece is not perfect. Several of the transitions are clumsy. Morten Burian is far from the greatest Hamlet i’ve ever seen. The text does not slip easily off his tongue, the words seem acted rather than owned. Only Casper Phillipson (as Laertes/Polonius) and the almost wordless Nanna Finding Koppel (Ophelia) are totally convincing. But weirdly it hardly matters. The pieces drama is perfectly expressed through the physicality of the performance, the music and the imagery. They even have the audacity to fill in some of Shakespeare’s gaps. In this version Ophelia’s suicide comes not as a shock but as the natural end point of an utterly understandable and heart breaking journey. And what a suicide it is!
Truth be told I missed the absent Horatio’s final – o so beautiful lines – to the dead Hamlet– ‘goodnight sweet prince and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’ but instead I’m left with the snarling Jacques crying ‘There’s nothing wrong / theres nothing right / it’s just a desolation song’.
And that’s kind of the point
Together Tulinius and the Jacques have created a world which is both obnoxious and enthralling. They have completely and utterly brutalised the Hamlet you may know but like the voyeur Jaques wants you to be you can’t help but be drawn into that world. And the world they have created is so brutally faithful to the world of Hamlet that Shakespeare himself would undoubtedly have recognised it and ultimately that’s what makes this a very special night of music theatre.