Hamlet, Upstairs at the Gatehouse London

A he or not a he?
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The Independent Culture

It is the season for single-sex Shakespeare, and, true to the theatrical zeitgeist, the director Stephen Jameson has taken a turn at bending the gender rules with his all-female Hamlet. There has been a bit of tweaking at the text - chunks have been cut and pasted; and the roles of Ophelia and Laertes given more prominence.

Miranda Cook rises to the challenge of playing the Prince with vigour. Cook has few female precedents to follow and her interpretation of the role seems all the stronger for it. Her Hamlet is distinctly male. But, unlike many male actors who have tackled the role, she brings, at times, a child-like quality to her Dane, not just in the pageboy bob, but in the petulant sarcasm with which he taunts his aloof, guilty uncle (a poised Sinead O'Keeffe). When, during a visitation from King Hamlet's ghost, the late King sits on the throne cradling an inert Hamlet, it is the image of a son grieving for his father (to the point of paralysis) that is compounded.

The ambitious setting - the last days of the Weimar Republic, in early-Thirties Germany - is only loosely adhered to. There are plenty of anachronisms to pull Jameson up on. The background throb of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" signals Claudius's "heavy-headed revels"; Ophelia's showdown with Hamlet in Act III is tapped with hi-tech bugs. Yet a sense of hedonist decay and disintegration of established order remains. The red, white and black drapes forming the backdrop of Dora Schweitzer's design are simple but symbolic - there is, after all, only so much that can be done with a fringe budget. When Polonius fatally conceals himself in Gertrude's bedroom behind a similar band of red silk, it unfurls from the ceiling like a flag for Hitler's Fascism. A swastika is not visible. But the allusion is.

The frenzied, grief-induced scuffle of Laertes (Julia Marsen) and Hamlet over Ophelia's corpse reminds us that all three young protagonists have a stake in the tragedy. Cook and Marsen may not summon up any testosterone, but they do a good job of simulating the stuff - it lingers in the air like smoke from a gun.

In total contrast to this brawl is the balletic calm of the final death scene. In slow motion, the poisoned chalice is passed round the throng - like a suicide's version of pass the (ticking) parcel. The hushed operatic wailing in the background may be a step too far, eliciting a fleeting temptation to snigger. But it serves, suitably, in preparing the audience for the entrance of the dead-eyed warmonger Fortinbras (Fiona Paul). A precursor for the rise of Hitler's National Socialism, Fortinbras claims the throne with a parting shot that will send a shiver down your spine.

A cabaret atmosphere is sporadic. It is incongruous with Claudius's court, yet fitting for Weimar Germany. And it does add to the production's strong sense of nostalgia for the past and melancholy for the future. Jameson pulls off his cross-gender casting. But beyond the artistic experiment, this Hamlet, positioned between two world wars, is in essence a plausible anthem to doomed youth.

To 12 July (020-8340 3488)