In his new production of Hamlet for Birmingham Rep at the Edinburgh Festival, Calixto Bieito has most surely achieved his primary objective - that of making the audience feel as if they have never seen the piece before. In the same way, although not as effectively or imaginatively, as Baz Luhrmann made Romeo and Juliet not Shakespeare's but his very own, so Bieito has hijacked Hamlet. He doesn't so much suspend the audience's disbelief as stretch it to alarming proportions. I'm not convinced that Bieito has much faith in Shakespeare's play or even understands it. He wouldn't other- wise have decimated it, deconstructed it - and reduced its many incidents to a distant echo of Shakespeare's text.
Under the pink neon-lit sign of the Palace nightclub, the action takes place a million miles from Elsinore. Hamlet's initial vision of the ghost happens not on the gun platform but in a pill- and alcohol-induced semi-coma and, while not exactly Hamlet the Musical, it is certainly unusual to have a pianist (Karl Daymond) on stage throughout.
When the characters' speeches and songs overlap, the effect is not so much one of broken rhythms and fragmented sentences heightening the dramatic confusion as an incoherent babble. George Anton, who has worked with Bieito before, has a challenging time in the role of Hamlet, tantalisingly on the verge of capturing his multi-dimensional personality or conveying the disarray of his thinking.
Rachel Pickup is a particularly passive fair Ophelia, while Rupert Frazer makes a smoothly vicious Polonius, a shadowy figure who quietly observes Hamlet's gratuitous rape of his daughter. Reigning over this scene of sickness and corruption are Diane Fletcher, impressive as Gertrude, and George Costigan as Claudius.
Popular and populist in a particular way, and audacious within Bieito's unmistakable stylistic range, it will bewilder anyone who isn't familiar with Shakespeare's original, and frustrate many who are. Give Bieito a throne contaminated by regicide, fratricide, adultery and incest, and he immediately throws in callous abuse and bloody beatings.
Is it, I wonder, because he has nothing else to believe in, no other way to express the physical and mental illness that colour the play? The loss of set-pieces such as the gravediggers' comic episode, and the paring down of the play's vivid mental pictures reduces Shakespeare's art to mindless sex and violence. This is a production with attitude, all right, but Hamlet is a revenge tragedy with more dimensions than this cardboard cut-out parody suggests.
To 30 August (0131-473 2000); at Birmingham Rep from 9 September (0121-236 4455)Reuse content