Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Opened 20 August, 2003

It's a beginning to put you on your guard. Instead of the battlements of Elsinore, we see an array of expensive leather armchairs and a pink neon sign proclaiming "Palace". Off to one side, a pianist (Horatio, we later discover) tinkles on a white baby grand. Enter Claudius, who strides to a microphone and belts out a karaoke-quality rendition of "He Ain't Heavy, He Was My Brother" [sic]. Welcome to Calixto Bieito's take on Hamlet.

After a while, however, one stops registering the audacity of the Catalan director's interpretation per se even almost entirely stops laughing in shocked delight at individual twists and ideas and settles down to watch the piece on its own terms, not those of one's preconceptions. And on those terms, this Birmingham Rep production showing in Festival at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre works a treat. It may well be the first Hamlet I have seen in which radical modernisation serves to bring out the emotional ferment of the play without swamping it in high-concept directorial whimsy.

As the design suggests, this Denmark is in effect an expensive but morally hollow nightclub: drinks are consumed from a vast array of bottles on a table, and the main weapon used during the evening is an ice pick. George Costigan's Claudius is a fine smiling, damnèd villain, more Godfather than king. George Anton's Hamlet seems at first to have a limited emotional range, but this text is cut to leave no time for leisurely reflection. It clocks in at two hours without an interval. Indeed, once or twice it briefly feels like "Now That's What I Call Hamlet", as greatest-hits lines come not single spies, but in battalions.

And it's not just Hamlet and Gertrude: pretty much everyone harbours erratically concealed sexual longings for pretty much everyone else. Again, though, it feels as if these are elements being brought out of rather than foisted upon Shakespeare. Karl Daymond as "Horatio, the Pianist" seems to orchestrate the entire grisly disintegration of the court, metaphorically as well as literally; he becomes almost a counterpart of the witches in Macbeth.

Bieito's production is brim-full of ideas, far too many for even a cursory list of the most striking. Suffice to say that, by the end of two hours, as Hamlet finally sinks into one of those armchairs to await his death amid the débris of bottles, garbage and funeral ashes, we have seen a group of people writhing in a mire far more palpable than the literal mud which occupied this same stage last week in The Last Night Of Mankind.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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