In the second part of a Shakespeare double bill at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre Purple Coat Productions present Hamlet. Hamlet (Katie King) is a young prince who is greeted by the ghost of her (Hamlet is played very well by a woman) recently deceased father. The ghost tells her that he was murdered for his crown by his treacherous brother Claudius (Lee Burnitt); who then went on to marry his widow, and Hamlet’s mother, less than two months later. Hamlet meditates on and attempts to avenge her father’s murder.
An audio-visual introduction sets the scene. It is 1980s Liverpool – birthplace of Purple Coat Productions, where rich and poor live check by jowl and there is a constant feeling of dissatisfaction; a city on the edge. The main way that this theme is carried through the play is in the costumes. Stone washed denim, Doc martens, gold jewellery, shiny leggings and bomber jackets. Purple Coat’s Denmark is a hot bed of lust and incest. The characters are fully fleshed out and little twists are made on their actions. One side effect of this is that in the first half of the play Hamlet is portrayed as being the most sane, sensible and normal character. She does not seem mad or absurd. The world around her is licentious and illegal things happen regularly in the face of the madness around her Hamlet anger and hesitation make sense. This is something which is very rarely achieved on stage but Purple Coat make it look easy.
Ophelia (Paula Lee) is a notoriously tricky rôle to pin down however in this performance Lee was one of the stand-out stars. She managed to make such vague utterances as ‘I know not what to think’ seem clear; language as an act of survival. An added element of danger and intrigue is introduced through her interactions with the men in her life. The audience first see her with her brother Laertes. Soon to leave Denmark, he makes it clear that his interests in Ophelia are not entirely familial. He has a sexual interest in her; forcing his intentions onto her. This is followed by the entrance of Polonius and his famous speech made up of now common sayings and advice, such as ‘neither a borrower or a lender be’. In this production Polonius is not a bumbling, pompous old man. He is terrifying. Going one step further he rapes his own daughter. The scene is so well acted that it seems to fit perfectly with Shakespeare’s text and it adds weight to Ophelia’s language and eventual madness. Further, Claudius has a sinister edge; he is a dangerous man prepared to kill and maim to get what he wants. He is excellently portrayed as being angry, violent, controlling. He is partnered by another difficult to capture female character: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caitlin Clough). Often seem as a sexually incontinent rather stupid woman here she is cocaine snorting young woman who loves her son but seems to be over taken by the events around her. All she has to offer her new husband is her body and comfort; and yet she is played delicately.
Purple Coat have managed to do something very rare and make the events in one of the world’s best known plays, seem surprising. There is an undercurrent of danger which is electrifying. As the play reached its final act, although many of the audience will know the speech, they will not know what to expect next. This is a rare and fantastic feat that is not likely to be repeated in the near future. This performance will make you see Hamlet anew and is not to be missed on its regrettably short Dublin run.
Photo courtesy of Smock Alley. Runs Until April 11th 2015.