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What You Think You Know About Hamlet

Jess Zlotnick reviews Montague Basement’s Hamlet

Photography by Zaina Ahmed

There are a large number of high school graduates who feel they know as much as there is to know about Hamlet. We know it, or we think we know it, and that’s what Montague Basement’s adaptation is about: what we think we know about Hamlet.

The show is brazen, the script edited to a neat 90 minutes, characters cut liberally to leave a core cast of five: Horatio, Polonius, Claudius, Ophelia and Hamlet. Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s choice to reduce Shakespeare’s longest play to a neat hour and a half makes for an intense, compact experience. The show is far from boring; it leaves you reeling by the end from the unexpected choices and departures from the source material.

The modernisation is done well, the high-stakes politics of Denmark transposed to a teenage boy’s bedroom. Hamlet is the quintessential angsty teen, and in this production great lengths are taken to ensure we remember this and view him not as a prince, not as a literary figure, but as a deeply disturbed and damaged teenage boy.

Performances are strong throughout. Christian Byers gives a frenetic energy to his performance as the titular prince, constantly pacing and moving. Zach Beavon-Collins provides a nuanced and beautiful performance as Horatio and Patrick Morrow is perfectly cast as Polonius, delivery wonderful moments of comic relief. Robert Boddington’s Claudius is an unfortunate missed opportunity. Many of Claudius’s scenes and arguably best moments are sitting on the cutting room floor, leaving Boddington with little time to show character.

Shakespeare is renowned for having his women die off stage so their romantic male counterpart may be informed at some point and suffer emotionally for it. Lusty-Cavallari reroutes this problematic trend, having Ophelia’s suicide depicted on stage. Lulu Howes gives a beautiful, layered performance, Ophelia’s final words intense and incredibly powerful as she reaches out to the audience.

It’s easy to say what a show could have done, but Montague Basement has done something brave in Hamlet. The edits are daring, the characters taking on more weight and meaning as they swap narrative significance, trade lines, perform others parts for lack of bodies on stage, and it is effective. Surrounded by television sets and videocassettes this adaptation could be called What You Think You Know About Hamlet. We are given moments of self-awareness with a dramatic sarcasm.

The Bard lives in the collective zeitgeist as an amalgam of clichés, parodies and expectations. Montague Basement’s Hamlet avoids these by directly facing the beast that is the idea of Hamlet, and draws out elements of the script that have perhaps gone ignored before now, creating a drama that is beautiful to watch and even more beautiful to think about.