A single phrase dictates the tone of Zoe Ford’s explosive and brutal modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and it’s one that pretty much gives this astounding production an 18 rating.
Nothing prepares you for the violence that starts the moment Denmark’s troubled prince is remanded in custody at a top security wing of a Liverpool jail that is to become his Elsinore.
“Denmark’s a prison to me,” says Hamlet and, in this version, it becomes his reality.
This is Hamlet like you’ve never seen it before with a visceral performance by its young cast.
The stage at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios was awash with blood by the end of the performance as vicious bare-knuckle fighting replaces the finesse of a final duel.
The continual onslaught of violence among inmates makes the air in the theatre thick with fear and intimidation.
Ford, as artistic director and producer, has pared down the Bard’s lengthy script – jettisoning Yorick’s only scene along the way (alas, poor Yorick) – to create a tight two-hour show that gets to the heart of Hamlet in a very accessible, modern and original re-imagining.
The drama comes with a warning about male nudity and language. That’s the least of it.
Adam Lawrence, fresh from TV’s hit gangster series, Peaky Blinders, looks like a hungry young Leo DiCaprio as the eponymous prince of the title.
He handles most of the key speeches with confidence and has tremendous stage presence. Lawrence is a name to watch for the future.
Within seconds of checking into the wing Hamlet is strip-searched (not a pretty sight if you’re in the front row) before being thrown in with the other prisoners.
Damian Escayg’s jittery druggie Francisco provides moments of light relief as tries to make his presence known alongside the more outspoken Horatio and Bernardo (Lewis Howard and Jack Greenlees).
The ghost of Hamlet’s dead father comes to him in his prison cell and demands vengeance.
It is a tall order when you’re banged up with only limited access to your mother Gertrude (Joyce Greenaway, looking like a gangster’s moll in black leather, who delivers an excellent death scene) and her new thug of a husband (a fearsome shaven-headed Russell Barnett as Claudius).
The arrival of Hamlet’s former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern racks up the tension to a whole new level.
Nathan Whitfield and Christopher York serve up a terrifying double act that reeks of testosterone and menace.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are psychotic thugs who delight in blood-letting and the actors are both chilling to watch.
The audience returns after the interval to see the pair shirtless and working out.
As the lights fall they lash out to deliver a shocking beating and so, buzzing from the attack, that they even threaten the audience.
The brutality is relentless.
Jessica White’s Ophelia, who works as a prison therapist, only has a couple of key scenes in this edition of the tragedy with her death almost overlooked as it shares the stage with yet another fight.
Hiraeth Productions has come up with an impressive and electrifying Hamlet.
The language of Shakespeare is cleverly intercut with modern dialogue in a Scouse accent that spares no blushes.
“Shall we have a f****** play?” demands Claudius as he waits for Hamlet’s amateur actors. This isn’t a show for the easily offended.
Its young cast throw themselves into their parts and look realistic and believable as inmates.
They don’t hold back and relish getting stuck into the fight scenes. While there’s excellent choreography from the company’s fight coach, Josh Jefferies, I can see some of the cast ending the run with more than a few bruises.
This remarkably powerful production will enthuse young audiences and leave a lasting impression on older theatre-goers. Bill Shakespeare would have been delighted.
Hamlet runs at The Riverside Studios until June 22.