JOYCE MCMILLAN on HAMLET at the Citizens’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 27.9.14.
4 stars ****
THE TIME seems to be the 1960’s, or perhaps the early 1970’s. When Brian Ferguson’s nervy, furious Hamlet wants to take notes about the evil he sees around him, he uses an old-fashioned BBC-style portable tape recorder, slung over his shoulder. Around the back of the stage sit more big reel-to-reel recorders, like the equipment in a pre-internet government surveillance centre; but in Tom Piper’s set and Nikola Kodjabashia’s sound design, there’s also a hint of an old radiophonic workshop, with musical instruments lying around to be picked up and played by cast members, occasional blasts of electronic sound, voices switching into amplification and out again.
And at one level, the references to this period in social history make perfect sense. Ever since the 1960’s – as family breakdown and divorce have become a more widespread across the west – directors have been casting Hamlet as a furious teenage boy appalled by his mother’s new relationship; very often, these sulky teenage princes completely unbalance the staging of a play which is not only about family and psychology, but also about kingship, and the ruin of a state.
Now, though, here comes a production, from Dominic Hill and the Citizens’ Theatre, that goes so boldly and directly for the family drama at the heart of Shakespeare’s play – even setting many of its scenes in an improvised palace living-room with sofa and standard-lamp – that it has the paradoxical effect of pulling the whole drama back into focus, in thrilling and fascinating style.
The secret of the production’s success is twofold. First, instead of simply assuming our sympathy for Hamlet’s rage and disgust, it concentrates fiercely on him, pulling apart and examining his horror to a depth that makes us fully aware of Hamlet’s weaknesses, but also increasingly, poignantly conscious of his courage, intelligence and honesty. It’s an interpretation that places a huge weight on the shoulders of Brian Ferguson’s frail-looking, bespectacled Hamlet; but he rises to the challenge with terrific emotional nerve, shaping Hamlet’s series of mighty soliloquies into fierce, dynamic waymarks on an unforgettable inner journey.
And then secondly, by linking the action to a time when the rebellion of youth itself had huge political resonances, the production offers a powerful insight into the enduring signifcance of Hamlet’s revolt, not only against his mother and uncle, but also – at a deeper level – against the stern instruction of his father’s spirit to complete an ancient ritual of revenge. The whole nine-strong cast of Hill’s production seem absolutely at one with the picture painted by the production, with Peter Guinness as a suave and tormented Claudius, and Cliff Burnett as a strange, effete and bullying Polonius, in particularly impressive form.
And when Meghan Tyler’s clever, complex and beautiful Ophelia transforms her “mad scene” by coming to the microphone and roaring out her rage, grief, agony and sexual damage like some young Janis Joplin caught between blues and death metal, this Hamlet reaches a level of nerve-wrenching intensity and tragedy rarely achieved in more conventionally poetic productions; an intensity well earned by Brian Ferguson’s brave and ground-breaking central performance, and by a company who richly deserved their first-night standing ovation, at the Citizens’ on Wednesday.