Trafalgar Studios, London (****)

© Robert Workman, the remarkable Mark Arends as a fiercely tormented Hamlet

© Robert Workman, the remarkable Mark Arends as a fiercely tormented Hamlet

When it comes to radical rethinks of Shakespeare, sometimes you find it in the most unexpected places. Kelly Hunter’s Hamlet is one that hammers on the eyelids. Ferocious and deeply moving, it harbours an incendiary central performance from Mark Arends that at times makes you fear for his life, so emotionally tethered is it to its character’s nerve endings.

Running in at barely 90 minutes, Hunter, adapter as well as director, has pared the play back to its barest bones highlighting what has always been implied and inherent in the text: madness.

The word, in Hunter’s version, seems to occur many more times than one ever remembers hearing it before, and each time with differing, nuanced implications. `Madness in great ones must not unwatched go’, as spoken by Claudius is a threat. As spoken by Laertes of Ophelia’s descent, it becomes a spur to revenge. But for poor Hamlet, it is a cry of despair.

© Robert Workman, Mark Arends (Hamlet)

© Robert Workman, Mark Arends (Hamlet)

Cutting to the quick, in Hunter’s version, Arends’ Hamlet is consumed by torment at the `madness’ – the thoughts and ideas battering his brain. Hamlet’s `ghost’ sits within him, emerges from his own fevered imaginings. He writhes on the sofa, the only item of setting, apart from a floor soon-to-be strewn with family photos in a hermetic production in the small Trafalgar studio that, like Hamlet, allows audiences no escape.

His demons are all too real, and close, viscerally felt in Arends’ vulnerably thin frame as he tries to fight, argue, and reason his way through, to no avail.

© Robert Workman, Katy Stephens over-intrusive Gertrude to Mark Arends' vulnerable Hamlet

© Robert Workman, Katy Stephens over-intrusive Gertrude to Mark Arends’ vulnerable Hamlet

There is little humour in Hunter’s vision. Her Claudius (Tom Mannion) is a hedonist, evening clothes all askew. Katy Stephens’ Gertrude a dipsomaniac, three sheets to the wind until her encounter with Hamlet finally shakes her into sobriety whilst Francesca Zoutewelle’s Ophelia looks if not exactly fragile like one well acquainted with emotional indulgence. Her entrance with her father, Polonius’s dead body is truly shocking as is the play’s climactic body count which sees Laertes and Hamlet’s deaths initiated by a bloody fight over Ophelia’s grave.

© Robert Workman, Francesca Zoutewelle (Ophelia)

© Robert Workman, Francesca Zoutewelle (Ophelia), centre, and left, dead Polonius (David Fielder) and right Katy Stephens (Gertrude)

It’s a gruesome sight, underlining in real time, a family torn to shreds – the damage and the inheritance in human terms caused by one selfish act.

Revenge is all around – not just in Hamlet for the death of a dear father and a mother’s apparent wantonness – but in Laertes for a sister. And even a Grim Reaper as embodied in David Fielder’s hooded grave-digger.

Economic, succinct and even visionary, Hunter has taken liberties, cutting and splicing together scenes and characters (Horatio is no more but another form of Laertes, a mite confusing to those who maybe don’t know their Hamlet). But in the main, what she has created is a desperate, keenly graphic re-emphasising of the madness, the tumbrils and detonators going on in a human brain when confronted by loss and emotional pain.

Pretty terrific.

Hamlet runs in Trafalgar Studios to Dec 31, 2016

This review first published on this site, Dec 11, 2016


By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Kelly Hunter 


Hamlet: Mark Arends
Laertes: Finlay Cormack
Polonius/Gravedigger: David Fielder
Claudius: Tom Mannion
Gertrude: Katy Stephens
Ophelia: Francesca Zoutewelle

Adapter & Director: Kelly Hunter
Designer: Anthony Lamble
Costume Supervisor: Kat Smith
Lighting Designer: Tim Bray

Presented by Flute Theatre and English Touring Theatre

First perf of this production of Hamlet at Trafalgar Studios, Dec 6, 2016 after International and UK tour.