SOMEWHERE at the back of the open stage, Ben Onwukwe, as the ghost of the old king, stands in silhouette beneath a fierce white light, his voice compressed and crackly like an analogue broadcast. Nikola Kodjabashia’s live score, a cacophony of strummed piano wire, open strings and rumbling percussion, has risen to a formidable volume. At the point of greatest intensity, the focus cuts abruptly to Brian Ferguson’s Hamlet. Downstage, warmly lit, with a sea of darkness behind him, it’s as if he’s stepped into the room with us.
And you can imagine him doing that. With his sensible suit, black glasses and air of studiousness (his preferred reading is Dante), this Hamlet is not a natural hero but an ordinary young man placed in extraordinary circumstances. He’s prone to the occasional outburst but, more typically, he’s thoughtful and considered. Yes, he vacillates, but only as much as anyone would if they suspected the poisoner of their father to be Peter Guinness’s Claudius. He is an unnerving mix of the sleazy and the diplomatic.
What emerges in Dominic Hill’s exhilarating production is the story of a good man’s struggle against a society full of corruption and suspicion. A flank of reel-to-reel tape recorders suggests an era of cold-war surveillance. The speed with which Cliff Burnett’s Polonius changes character – from a bumptious bon vivant with a Paul Raymond moustacheto a brutal patriarch keeping his daughter, Ophelia, in line – suggests a male-dominated society that has little place for Hamlet’s sensitivities, let alone female values.
No wonder Meghan Tyler’s strident Ophelia turns to drink and dies the vodka-induced death of a 1960s rock casualty. It’s the only way to cope with the pressure. With Roberta Taylor’s Gertrude reduced to a defeated mumble, Hill’s lucid production is a study of the forces that drive fathers and sons to destruction.