Theatre: Hamlet on ice

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The Independent Culture
I CAUGHT a tempting sneak preview of this Lithuanian production - the highlight of the Bath Shakespeare Festival - three years ago when it was still a work-in-progress. The director, Eimuntas Nekrosius, had collected a gong as part of the European Theatre Prize. As a token of gratitude he unveiled his treatment of the scene where the Ghost of Old Hamlet enjoins his son to revenge.

In Nekrosius's version, the fur-coated spectre hands on this obligation in the shape of a block of ice with a dagger frozen in its centre and anoints young Hamlet's shivering feet and hands with its glacial sweat. As an image for the forbidding equivocality of the Ghost's instructions and for the hero's inhibitions over revenge, that weapon-enclosing ice cube has a haunting power and poetic suggestiveness. So I hurried eagerly to Bath to see how it fitted into the whole.

In the event, it was a disillusioning experience. This staging has bags of raw energy and rough headlong flair, but it constantly strains for effects at the expense of the play.

It doesn't help that Elsinore is presented from the start as a grotesque madhouse, with actors in furs pretending to be howling dogs and with a peculiar fashion among the nobs (including Gertrude) for wearing postcard- size black moustaches. Like some frightful practical joker, Vytautas Rumsas's boorish Claudius hands round a huge goblet that paints the teeth of those who drink from it bright gold. You'd be about as likely to create a startling individual impression with a daft hat at Ascot as hope to disturb this collection of weirdos with a display of assumed madness.

But, then, skilful dramatic build-up is not the forte of a production which mystifyingly wrenches events out of sequence and concludes with the Ghost wailing piteously over the corpse of a Hamlet who has failed to kill Claudius. Far from offering a blinding new perspective, this radical rewrite simply misses the point that, by the end of Shakespeare's increasingly profound play, the initial revenge considerations have drifted away from the central focus.

As with Yuri Lyubimov's Hamlet, which was dominated by a huge mobile hempen curtain so that Elsinore looked as if it was being terrorised by a Brobdingnagian dishcloth, this production gives its images a disproportionate prominence and pays the penalty of diminishing returns. With a disconcertingly Gary Rhodes-ish hairdo, Andrius Mamontovas, a Lithuanian rock star, makes an appealing boyish prince, but his performance is often dwarfed by the effects. He has to deliver "To be or not to be" while standing under the drips splatting down from a great melting ice-chandelier, decor courtesy of the Ghost, as his sodden white shirt disintegrates spectacularly around him.

The production boasts a piercingly poignant Ophelia (the unearthly soprano, Viktorija Kuodyte) and a superb Verdi-suffused soundtrack. Thematically, though, it skates on very thin ice.