13th September 1999
Hamlet: first cut
Director Jonathan Holloway cleverly opts for the rarely performed first quarto, a compact, pacy, almost certainly pirated from memory by one of the early 16th century actors who first performed it. Half the length of the authorised second quarto, it has a vital energy, and if some of the more familiar lines are absent, that's not always a distraction. What you are getting is theate, not literature.
Holloway's production is a little rough around the edges, and some of the performances require more confidence, but on Neil Irish's stunning, versatile set of jagged broken metal and steel obelisks it literally and metaphorically drums up a complete world, a post-industrial wasteland where paranoia thrives. It is set in Denmark but there is a sense of postwar Britain, a teetering establishment hanging on to power in a world irrevocably changed: Claudius could be a former RAF hero. Peter Collins's boyishly sympathetic Hamlet is undoubtedly the first to make the journey from neurotic, pill-popping child of the establishment to streetwise kid.
There are plenty of subtleties in the characterisations. Guy Oliver-Watts's Claudius is a man driven to ruthlessness by desperation; Simon Startin is an unusually complex Laertes; Sally Mortemore's Queen begins as the epitome of a woman who can never be too rich or too thin and becomes a worm that turns; Rachel Nicholson's Ofelia starts pretty and ends up in shocking pink with necrophiliac tendancies.
The whole thing is thrillingly urgent. At the end the dead sit upright on their steel thrones, their staring, sightless eyes gazing straight out at the audience, appearing to survey some terrible catastrophe that has taken place in the auditorium. It makes you want to shut your eyes and hide.
THE BIRMINGHAM POST
8th November 1999
New lease of life for the great Dane
Hamlet: first cut
This is Shakespeare served ice cool. With costumes by Red or Dead, an ambient soundtrack and a thrillingly unfamiliar script from the first moment a pill-popping Hamlet appears on stage Red Shift achieve the remarkable: they make you feel you are seeing this great play for the first time. Presented in the First Quarto, the text is shorter and punchier and, through some of the momentous lines are missing, the company's riotous energy and crisp verse-speaking ensure this text feels first-rate.
Everything about the production oozes rebellion. Elsinore is a tired military power and the young ones - Hamlet, Horatio, Ofelia (as she is in this version) and Laertes - stand in direct opposition to their brutal and dysfunctional elders. Hamlet is undoubtedly more sane than his predatory mother. The scenes between Hamlet and Ofelia, clawing desperately at a love cruelly ruined by parental manipulation, are the most moving I have seen.
Denied Hamlet's love, Ofelia descends into a convincing depressive recklessness, defiantly sporting a Pulp Fiction t-shirt and a blazing pink pencil skirt to commune crazily with the dead.
Peter Collins is superb as Hamlet, combining heart-breaking perplexity of the sensitive artist called upon to be a fighter. He leads an excellent cast who act as though performing this play is the highlight of their lives. Exhilarating, dangerous and not to be missed.