The sign over the stage says "Palace" in pink neon. A smarmy Elvis lookalike in a white suit, tinkling at a piano, is Horatio/ Old Hamlet's Ghost rolled into one. Claudius appears to be a seedy cross between Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart. He's draped round a microphone in black-tie, half-cut on cocktails, crooning "He ain't heavy, he was my brother". Yes, this is a very alternative vision of Elsinore, staged with British actors for Edinburgh's International Festival by Spain's Calixto Bieito. You might call it Hamlet: The Director's Cut-And-Paste Job. Bieito hasn't got noticeably better since his alternative Macbeth recently seen at the Barbican. In fact, his Hamlet looks suspiciously similar in many ways. Shakespeare's royals are rich mafia types; there are ironic musical inserts and loads of brutal sex and violence - you know, rape, necrophilia, one more sucker brained with a bottle etc. Again, the script takes a battering too.
That said, sometimes Bieito hits on a brilliant image or an interpretation that's persuasive as well as startling. Elsinore's mix of murderous corruption, surveillance and religious language does tally with Bieito's implicitly Catholic underworld. His cheeky textual editing also neatly compacts some diffuse encounters. Immediately after Claudius tells the student-prince what to do with his life, Laertes drags Ophelia on to the dance floor and insists she behave herself too while he's away. The evening is short (two hours), thanks to Bieito's heavy cuts and overlapping speeches. And with music running in tandem, the effect can be comical, hectic and haunting all at the same time.
For example, Polonius's endless instructions to the bit-part spy Reynaldo are boiled down to a manic one-sided telephone call, while Rachel Pickup's messed-up Ophelia sings "My heart belongs to daddy" in the background.
Such moments, though, are scattered among a great deal of crass directing. One gets the uncomfortable feeling the production itself is in the hands of a cynical, flippant thug. There's precious little psychological subtlety and character developments are unbelievably hurried. George Anton's Hamlet, slugging back hard spirits and pills, rushes flatly through his philosophical monologues as if he thinks "soliloquy" means "one very long word". Forget about Hamlet's going back to Wittenburg being retrograde to Claudius's desires: he surely didn't get the required grades in the first place.
Excess is the order of the day. Hamlet's Oedipal complex is nothing compared to the entire court's addiction to kinky abuse. Polonius gropes under his daughter's little black dress and Laertes gives her a French kiss, not to mention Horatio/ Old Hamlet getting to snog her corpse. No wonder she's reduced to a demented oral-sex bore, unzipping any trousers to hand. Some of the audience clearly thought all this was hilariously iconoclastic. Others snorted in derision. To say the festival director Brian McMaster's theatrical choices are hit-and-miss would be putting it mildly. Still I am, somewhat perversely, glad I saw this provoking piece of work. Some of the cast shine through, especially Diane Fletcher who, as an alcoholic, disillusioned Gertrude, brilliantly manages to make her incongruously picturesque description of Ophelia drowning in the brook into a cynical fairy tale.
There's more than one rival for the throne in Edward II. Now in rep in the Globe's Regime Change season, Marlowe's tragedy is rubbing shoulders with Shakespeare's rival portrait of the "effeminate" and deposed Richard II. What's startling about Edward II is how radical the young Marlowe's politics look, with Liam Brennan playing the doomed bisexual monarch. The production is performed in period costume: all velvet cloaks and silk breeches. But the dramatic vision seems modern.
Brennan plays Edward with great sympathy as a loving man who's obsessed and unshakeably devoted to Piers Gaveston, the minion Edward's barons won't tolerate. Brennan's ardent tenderness - enfolding and kissing Gerald Kyd's Gaveston - is so touching you sense this could have been My Beautiful Laundrette for the Elizabethan era. Furthermore, Edward's desire to live with his forbidden love brings to mind Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, not to mention more recent royals.
The fierce, disrespectful face-offs between Edward and his barons are also riveting. This king never seems to rule by any divine right, the theological thesis to which Richard II clings. The Globe's forte is airing lesser-known Renaissance dramas such as this. That said, Edward II's philosophising is less fully developed than Richard II's and Marlowe's Dido (also in rep) is more lyrically soaring. Tim Walker's staging is workmanlike with substandard supporting performances including the self-consciously cavorting Kyd. The all-male cast certainly highlights Marlowe's questions about sexually ambiguous men, but the female characters they play seem two-dimensional, reduced to stiff-backed walks and feyly twirling hands.
In Peter Hall's new touring production of As You Like It, the court of the usurper, Duke Frederick (a chilly David Yelland), is macho and aggressive with everyone dressed up in military uniforms. Its wrestling matches are hardly ideal entertainment for the young ladies - Celia and Rosalind - as Michael Siberry's wryly jesting Touchstone points out. Getting the production off to a strong start, the fights are choreographed with shockingly violent kicks and punches. Joseph Millson's Orlando, the challenger, really erupts with fury at being socially held-down as a younger brother. By contrast, the Forest of Arden (simply tree trunks flown into a deep grey space) is a more gentle world. Rebecca Hall's exiled Rosalind is greeted by a kindly shepherd, and the banished Duke (Yelland transformed into a mild alter ego) gives the starving Orlando a civil welcome in the woods too.
What comes across very clearly is how this play contemplates people's responses to adversity: with anger or patience, pessimism or optimism. Sir Peter also ensures the court/ country division isn't simplistic - the deer-hunting scene is pointedly bloody and Rosalind, in love but disguised as a boy, is clearly on her guard and sometimes aggressively critical of Orlando. And this play (interestingly in rep with Pinter's clock-reversing Betrayal) inverts time as Rosalind play-acts the nagging wife before she's wed. However, this production does peter out somewhat and the homosexual attractions aren't properly explored.
The ensemble's acting is uneven. Rebecca Callard's Celia also speaks blank verse like an enunciation exercise. Nonetheless, Eric Sykes is a gloriously drunk Oliver Martext, reducing the marriage service to slurred vowels and a burp. And Sir Peter's daughter, a lanky actress of assurance and intelligence, switches sex effortlessly, kicking around the forest with floppy limbs you'd swear belonged to an adolescent boy. Worth catching.
'Hamlet': Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (0131 473 2000), to Sat; 'Edward II': Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919), to 26 Sept; 'As You Like It': Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), to Sat, then touringReuse content