Cuts must be biting in the state of Denmark. In the Comédie-Française’s new production of Hamlet, the fabled kingdom has shrunk to the size of a 1970s sports clubhouse. Photos of the kings in fencing regalia decorate the bar; flared trousers and unspeakable wigs are all the rage. It’s a tacky edition of Shakespeare, and a strange offering from Paris-based British director Dan Jemmett.
Jemmett’s previous stints with the company, for Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules and Eduardo de Filippo’s La Grande Magie, met with acclaim, but the premises of this Hamlet are faulty. Jemmett muses about the Shakespearean dimension of soap operas in the programme and clearly sees some EastEnders in the twisted family drama at the heart of Hamlet. In its bid to reconcile the tragic and the banal, however, the production is all slapstick and no serious storytelling. Drinking games punctuate Gertrude and Claudius’s merrymaking; the clubhouse jukebox is a recurring character; Guildenstern is a puppet dog on the arm of Rosencrantz, and the duo ham it up like a music hall act.
The production revels in the cheapness of this stage world, and provides some memorably tasteless scenes. The set is inexplicably flanked on both sides by lavatories, and Hamlet happens upon “To be or not to be” while staring at a condom vending machine. Poor Ophelia ends her days in a toilet cubicle, perched on pink stilettos.
Once you’ve become used to the atmosphere of ridicule, there is some fun to be had, but the production never shakes off its arbitrary feel. What might play across the Channel as an offbeat take on a revered classic misses the mark here, perhaps in part because Hamlet isn’t nearly as ubiquitous a reference in the French context. Translation robs the text of its period feel and hallowed status, and there is little frisson in the deliberate outlandishness of Jemmett’s vision.
In keeping with the overall tone, the cast is required to be as over-the-top as they usually are in Labiche or Feydeau vaudevilles, and they work hard to provide comic relief throughout. Comédie-Française star Denis Podalydès, meanwhile, is an intriguing presence in his debut as Hamlet. At 50, he commands the stage with the determination of an actor hell-bent on making the role his own, questionable production or not. With his peculiar diction, at once shrewd and seething with irrational undercurrents, he is a righteous, obsessive Prince of Denmark, and a welcome sight amid the comedy.