This is not Hamlet but Hamlet? and, by the interval, a question-mark seemed to be hanging cartoon-style above the audience, too. I overheard one schoolboy calling out to his friends, ' 'Ere, Keith, is this crap?' There were times, watching the piece, when I felt that Keith's guess was as good as mine. Better, though, for people of his age to be puzzled and provoked by a production than numbed by something worthy and safe. This theatre, is, after all, the Young Vic.
Adapted from Shakespeare's play by Julia Bardsley and the company, the show feels a bit like the troubled dream of someone who has been swotting like fury for a semiotics exam while desperately trying to get into the Magicians' Circle at the same time.
The 'special providence' to which Hamlet refers is here personified in the shape of a top-hat-and-tails conjuror (a drag one to boot) who, with his befeathered assistant, officiates at an Elsinore where showbiz tackiness collides with high- brow glitz - a chronic but compelling case of Baudrillard meets Paul Daniels.
The result is not so much a reading of Hamlet (the text is very cut) as a series of artful conceits on some of its themes, especially the idea that the Danish court is, to quote the programme, 'a looking-glass world, a kingdom where every word is reported and every agent is shadowed by a double'.
Doubling runs rampant. For example, the actress playing Gertrude (Natasha Pope) has to keep performing the dressing-room ritual of turning herself into Ophelia - an emphatic reminder that, to the distorted perceptions of Hamlet (a vivid Rory Edwards), all women (Ophelia included) are Gertrudes-beneath-the-skin.
To reinforce this sense of a world haunted by doppelgangers, the characters carry puppets, each bearing an uncanny, stylised likeness to themselves. This produces some bizarre correspondences: the puppet of the ghost, which Boyd Clack's Claudius is hypnotised by the conjuror into manipulating, looks uncannily like the usurper himself, while the bagful of marionettes that stand in for the troupe of travelling players are identikit versions of the members of the Danish Royal Family whose parts they take in 'The Mousetrap'. In a decidedly creepy touch, the Player King, a scaled-down facsimile of Hamlet, is found nestling, like a barrier to incest, between the Claudius and Gertrude puppets.
This must be the first production of Hamlet ever to reassign the 'To be or not to be' speech to the Player King, although, as the puppet is worked by the actor playing the Prince, the result doubly suggests a weird identity between the pair.
Having this famous chunk of Shakespeare's play recited like an audition piece taken from some pre-existing classic is typical of this production's illusionistic procedures. It's also typical in that gains on the level of clever conceit are offset by losses on the level of honest drama. The differences between the Player King and Hamlet (one able to rant and weep real tears while performing in a fiction; the other unable to act, though his griefs are all too real) get badly blurred.
Forceful and eye-catching, the performances are rather confined by the quote-marks surrounding the piece. Realistic exploration of character is not on the cards. What is striking, though, is how something that could have been an irritating exercise keeps you intrigued to the end. Over that hangs no question-mark.
Young Vic, London SE1 (071- 928 6363) to 21 May
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