Brighton Fringe 2016
Robert Cohen both writes and stars in this original subversion of King Claudius of Denmark, addressing his courtiers in between what happens in Hamlet. Jenny Rowe directs in the legendary intimacy of Sweet Venues Waterfront 2.
Jenny Rowe directs Robert Cohen who both writes and stars in this original subversion of King Claudius of Denmark, addressing his courtiers in between rather famous scenes– in a manner obliquely reminiscent of Rosenctrantz and Guldenstern are Dead. This however’s a very different apologia. Seventy minutes pass swiftly in the legendary intimacy of Sweet Venues Waterfront 2.
It’s not fair. Nephew Hamlet has not only all the best lines but he’s a scene-stealer too, so in between these scenes Claudius addresses his entourage, confiding exactly who died and when and how it’ll naturally turn out well. Some deaths and entrances might surprise you. Some might say they had it coming.
Cohen’s cleverly-understated text utilises a sparing garnish of Jacobean syntax and florid language in a modern attacking idiom. It’s delivered a fleet set of ten speeches calibrated for the duration of Hamlet over a series of ninety days: the tone never cloys. Cohen’s Claudius is at once confiding and mildly threatening. His grin is thin-lipped, as horrible as – well, name your own politician.
This Claudius as been put upon and he’s setting the records straight. If you’re in the front row you might receive one of them or at least a court order. Cohen’s interaction with the audience is exemplary in such a confined space.
Not only did he take the pummelling every time his elder brother get two and two wrong (the heir’s head could never be so dinted) but later, when at Uppsala he meets Gertrude and woos her for himself he’s a little chagrined to find his father approving then thrusting to the elder brother who unlike Gertrude has a choice, and takes it. We learn later of the long-standing affair, with a timetabling to ensure Hamlet really is Hamlet’s as it were.
Cohen revisits the original military rationale and keeps Young Fortinbras of Norway at the forefront of the narrative, when calling on the impress of service, and evoking the uses of war and a state under siege. Hence Laertes despite his rashness in plunging straight for Claudius on his return from Paris and nearly killing him, is just the kind of soldier Claudius needs.
Hamlet on the other hand had infinitely more chances to kill him Claudius reflects, and fails utterly, merely dispatching poor Polonius when logic would tell him Claudius has no need to skulk. No, madness in great ones must not unchecked go – nor incompetence.
Cohen deploys casual anti-Semitism mixing up the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern names up to the extent the audience almost sigh when he gets it right. The two Hebrews have also failed so are dispatched on that mission to England which offers to remit England’s ‘tribute’ to Denmark. Cohen never relinquishes the realpolitik behind Denmark’s civil and drinking breaches. England’s been warned before.
And there’s Yorick, who spends much of Claudius’ youth berating him for losing a bride to his brother and perpetrating hang-dog looks – Yorick’s dead now of course. That doesn’t prevent Claudius revenging himself on his skull, at the least.
Rowe directs with clean lighting interspersed with blackouts – including a rapid off/on set of cameos where Cohen’s glimpsed with a femur he brandishes earlier, leaping out at alarming corners of the room. Rowe invests the sonics with some brass fanfares and a discreetly swelling use of symphonic music, three chirruping Mahler symphonies, Sibelius 4, Mendelssohn and was it Berlioz’s Tristia Hamlet march?
She’s also elicited from Cohen his crispest, most animated performance to date. There’s more variety in this performance than anything since the magnificent Harvey Matusow, and more fleetness, mobility of expression and varietal snarl. This show has legs as well as stray femurs and will soon I trust breathe its sallow-suited brilliance in wider venues – and implicate others in this very different I, Claudius.