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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Sean Holmes, Designed by Grace Smart, Composer Ed Gaughan, Co-Director and Dramaturg Zoe Svendsen, Assistant Director Bethany West. Costume Supervisor Jackie Orton, Fight Director Philip d’Orléans, Globe Associate – Text Christine Schmidle, Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Candle Consultant Anna Watson. Casting Becky Paris.

Till April 9th.


‘Madness in great ones should not unwatched go.’ So your nephew and heir’s a comedic populist, charismatically unstable yet capable of winning over the mob. And there’s an equally dangerous young man slipping his uncle’s grasp about to invade because the old king’s gone, the country weak and divided. It’s not 2016, this isn’t the USA. If you were Claudius, wouldn’t you terminate your nephew before he terminates Denmark?

That’s one way into reading George Fouracres’ Hamlet, prince of stand-up, who proceeds to mooch in timeless black against the majority cast’s period costumes – Jackie Orton creates a stark Elizabethan formality of ruffs rubbed up to more contemporary garb. Disinhibition comes as Ophelia later casts her court weeds for street cred.

Director Sean Holmes invokes surveillance not in CCTV and hand-helds, but letting the apparel proclaim the man and woman: it’s a surveillance of the mindset, an armour against Hamlet’s slouch-wear towards the mob. And it’s a deft use of the Wanamaker’s traditional resource.

Co-director Zoe Svendsen leaves her mark too, as she has with the re-imagined Merchant running alongside this production. It’s an imaginatively detailed Hamlet that sometimes gets away.

There’s musical bifurcation too: composer and on-stage guitarist Ed Gaughan slips from Django Reinhardt-ish jazz into Dowland’s ‘Flow my teares’, arranging other songs for Ophelia to sing and for himself as gravedigger – well, we’ll get there.

Fouracres often proves elusive – not just because Holmes has intercut the scenes so Hamlet vanishes or doesn’t appear when required, to proclaim a monologue by himself, where everyone’s seeking him in a swirl of backstage candles: consultant Anna Watson’s use of them whirled behind and before, starting in blackout, is ingenious, perhaps underused.

So Hamlet’s ‘seek him there’ tendency sets up the post-Polonius-slaying moment as a well-worn rigmarole. Fouracres though seems in the first two acts hiding from himself as ‘Denmark’, veering between agonies and managing wisecracks with a cruel comedian’s glee. This Hamlet does know ‘seems’, protests too much.

Fouracres’ soliloquies measure the words in lengths of irony. Sometimes stabbingly short, but with remarkable poise and savour. There’s a luxury to this production, almost an indulgence in its three-hours-fifteen with two intervals.

But then there’s the central panel, the entire third act spread over nearly an hour, where the central well of Grace Smart’s set begins to assert itself, though often planked over. It’s been used in the Act One swearing moment with Hamlet drawing out a sword like Excalibur for showy mystic reasons. Now upstage ornate panels are stripped off in the interval so black/white graffiti’d ones usher in an edgy populism, surely more suited for Act Four.

This is the heart of the production and why you should see it. The climax is undoubtedly the scene where Polly Frame’s elegant Gertrude tears herself to pieces when Fouracres explodes with terrified volatility. That’s as Ciarán O’Brien’s Ghost this time glowers over him, offering violence, in his semi-nude Grecian military bondage gear (it’s how he first appeared too). This transmission to Gertrude is visceral. Whatever the Ghost says – ‘leave her to heaven’ – his intervention’s a haunting. Gertrude never recovers. We see her unhinging with Ophelia’s madness, finally drunk in the last scene, obliviously snatching the fatal goblet.

There’s a richness here too. Fouracres’ pipe-playing of O’Brien’s solidly miserable Guildenstern and Francesca Henry’s lithe slippery Rosencrantz where Guildenstern’s forced to play tuneless descant to Fouracres’ efficient stops garners predictable laughter. There’s the proleptic slaying of Irfan Shamji’s Claudius at prayer – then a rewind as naturally this hasn’t happened. ‘That doesn’t happen till later’ mutters a shocked audience member. Well thinking makes it so.

And as real audience pleaser, making single use of that balcony we have the players’ Hecuba et al stripped out as Frame’s sudden Juliet is answered by John Lightbody’s Polonius as demonstration of the power of theatre. They do it with a thrill too. Hamlet’s speech ‘what’s Juliet to him’ naturally draws in those seeing Hamlet for the first time. With an hour’s Act Three it’s a navigable fun shorthand for the audience, if less rich than the original actors’ pathos.

After all we’ve got Henry’s Player Queen, O’Brien’s Player King and Bo Holland’s usurping Laertes (reading in magnificently for Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, gesturing almost off the book). As they swirl around that central dais – the perilous planked-over well – in dumb show and the speeches Claudius stops, you feel they could’ve been stretched even more. The patient unfolding of this act though is special and original.

Shamji’s Claudius is as dangerous as his nephew. He’ll use physical threat towards subordinates, even Horatio. He’s brusquely entitled, but realises Hamlet’s description of him as satyr: aristocratic but an overreaching second son. Palpably not born to rule he somehow collapses at the end, almost ceding his crown to Laertes as an act of relief.

Peter Bourke’s Horatio cuts an increasingly avuncular presence with Hamlet from Act Three, though in this nine-strong cast he’s made pre-emptory use of by Claudius. Vocally he’s a sceptical elder, and it’s a pity his final speech is shorn, as well as his reaction to Hamlet’s piratical antics. Hamlet’s letter to him is assigned Claudius too.

There’s been a welcome recent tradition of playing against Polonius as doddery. The Almeida’s shafted a general alertness with shards of dementia. Here, Lightbody’s Polonius delights in his officious artifice as well as brisk dispatch with advice and reply. His matter/art dilemma is superannuated drollery; a palpable irritation with Hamlet’s ‘very like a whale’ suppressed in servility. As a brief Player King Romeo he swerves absurdity with a hint of an actorly youth.

Rachel Hannah Clarke’s Ophelia is allowed less room in the first two acts than say Hamlet. Her slightly cut speeches being rapid and high-pitched, you don’t feel she’ll grow till she discards her court whalebone stays. Then we’re treated to a virtuoso display of Gaughan’s re-composition. Out goes the ‘by cock’ and in come contemporary riffs Clarke eggs the audience to join her in.

It’s great fun but excludes pathos. Clarke, instead of distracted grief – at the least – finds anger enough to blaze a 21st century response. It makes Clarke warmly relatable, given a moment to shine: but the text bends against this. Ophelia’s end makes less sense, her imaginary flowers not the act of someone drowning, but waving. Doffing her clothes (a detachable sleeve is masterly) is still a visual cover-up – paradoxical intent – to offset this. But it leads to a neat gesture.

That well’s single coup is saved for Gertrude’s traumatised slow recitative of Ophelia’s death, always a tricky moment. It’s too elaborate even though the preface ‘your sister’s drowned’ enacts plain simple words to pierce the ear of grief. Here Frame’s equally grieving Gertrude re-enacts Ophelia’s death by picking up her discarded cardigan and letting it float in the well, made heavy by its drink then fished out dripping. It’s quite a set-build for a gesture, but Ophelia’s role seems more ornamental than usual.

If Act Four loosens – less use is made of the Laertes-inspired mob than it could have been and the confrontation isn’t as threatening – we’re also foreshortened in the Horatio/Hamlet reunion. It’s mostly still there, but Hamlet’s sea-change hasn’t crossed with him, the imminent deaths of his two former fellows too summary to register.

O’Brien’s excellent Priest is less churlish than cheery cigarette-smoking second skull-player to Gaughan’s Gravedigger, and again the production jokes at its length and treats us to a sit-down stand-up dazzling with Gaughin’s jokes (the latest you can imagine) but offering now a full-scale un-drunken porter singalong.

It’s snapped to with the burial, though the tension we’ve seen in Act Three is palpably less intense. The finale reminds one of the curiously gentle helping each other over into death of the Almeida‘s 2017 production; a family intimacy. The well, really built for that one scene, allows the dead to dangle legs at the least.

Fight director Philip d’Orléans does what he can with the baseball bats and garb: it’s a splash of action in a slow-motion bleed. Fouracres again finds space to soliloquise; still we’re hampered by Claudius voluntarily drinking (this does though square with Shamji’s portrayal of a collapse as complete as Gertude’s), Horatio too easily surrendering the same cup.

The extinction on Hamlet’s final words is properly theatrical, but have we parted company with him already? With so much made of Fortinbras, even here, you feel Henry’s Osric rushing off very effectively shouting ‘treason!’ might have returned as heir.

Fouracres proves a charmingly charismatic prince but dangerous, even cruel in his comedic timing. You feel there’s a great Hamlet almost realised. Fortinbras’ shorn words of Hamlet: ‘had he been put on…’ beg questions. Claudius might be wrong. A stand-up has proved resilient enough to lead his country to the world’s admiration, and – for the moment – smote the sledded Russians on the ice.