Double Review: Pierced humanity engulfed in murk

Paul Taylor reviews `Hamlet' and Judy Upton's `Confidence' at Birmingham Rep
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The Independent Culture
WITH THAT prankster-cherub face and those subversive gobstopper eyes, Richard McCabe communicates a wonderful spirit of suppressed anarchy as a performer and developes a terrific rapport with an audience. Having made his reputation with memorable performances as Shakespearean comic characters - Puck, Autolycus, Touchstone - he now graduates to the hero who is, in a sense, a profound comedian miscast in a revenge tragedy.

Taking the title role in Bill Alexander's gripping and unsettling production of Hamlet at the Birmingham Rep, McCabe brings an expertly-edged, goading levity to the Prince's "antic disposition". He parades about in a night- gown which he gawps inside, to check the state of play with his genitals, at the line: "That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs". Ordered to leave for England, he treats an appalled Claudius to a satirically- lascivious kiss and skips off in a parody of camp, carefree gaiety.

Full of sudden false-footing mood switches, the performance never lets you lose a sense of the hero's pierced humanity. The Elsinore that oppresses Hamlet is unerringly conveyed here as a cavernous shadowy world, littered with whispering young spies - the action taking place on a murk-engulfed wooden thrust-stage that stretches back to a sinister lone door in the far distance. Brutal-looking, but also given to brief fits of panic-weeping, Gerard Murphy - playing the ruler of this realm - is quite the best Claudius I've ever seen. You can almost feel the character's brains and guts knotting from the passionate sweaty intensity with which Murphy's Claudius enacts the tortured wrestlings with the problem of repentance. And there's a wonderfully unsavoury comic blatancy about the way this King manipulates Laertes (Martin Hutson) into believing that he is making the running in the plot against Hamlet.

The text has been cut in an odd manner so that we get the admittedly excellent, yet rarely played scene between Polonius and his spy Reynaldo, but no sight or mention of Fortinbras, the man of action who helps highlight the value of Hamlet's contemplativeness. His absence makes for an unduly sentimental ending. This is, nonetheless, a sweeping, urgent account of the tragedy and strongly recommended.

In the Rep's studio theatre - now given a new look and a new name, The Door - the autumn season of writing gets off to an amusing yet slightly disappointing start with Confidence by the prolific Judy Upton. Seaside towns seem to be for her what daffodils were for Wordsworth, not to mention what depravation was for Larkin. Ashes and Sand, for example, which won her the George Devine Award, focussed on a violent girl-gang in a washed- out resort. In Confidence the havoc along the prom is created by one girl, Ella, an erotic accident-zone who is played with a startling mix of don't- give-a-shit cool and witty insolence by talented newcomer, Jody Watson.

"Do you want to be the kicker or the kicked?" asks a character. Ella wants to be the person who can pay someone else to kick the kicker and, as she embarks on a scheme of tricking tourists into taking boat trips to see a couple of bogus motorised dolphins, she strings along more men than she can manage.

Anthony Clark's production is beautifully acted but I became irritated with the relentless quirky humour and the characterisation - Ella enjoys frozen chocolate bars in the same way Monica Lewinsky enjoyed cigars. By comparison with Ashes and Sand or Bruises, which was a bleak comic exploration of how domestic violence is passed on from generation to generation, Confidence fails to convince you that there is anything major at stake, while displaying bags of eponymous virtue.