Reviewed by James Karas
The renowned Comédie-Française has produced an unorthodox version of Hamlet that is of considerable interest with some very fine acing. The staging is directed by Dan Jemmett who has reworked the play almost beyond recognition.
Elliot Jenicot, Denis Podalydes and Herve Pierre in Hamlet. Photo Mirco Magliocca
Denmark becomes a sleazy bar and all the action takes place there. The bar has some stools and there are washrooms on each side of the stage. A jukebox is prominently featured and played all too frequently blaring country and western hits.
The opening scene takes place in the bar where the Ghost of Hamlet appears. But this Ghost is quite physical. He grabs his son to make his point about how he died and he goes to the bar and has a drink. When he has emptied his glass he has a swig from the bottle.
Claudius is the owner of the bar. He wears a polyester suit, shaded glasses and a cheap wig. In the first court scene, he appears with Gertrude who wears a see-through dress, a cheap blonde wig and looks like a sleaze. The jukebox plays “Please release me, let me go” as the “king” and “queen” go the bar with Polonius and Laertes for a drink.
Hamlet has more than thirty characters but Jemmett has cut that number down to 25 and they are all played by 11 actors. Laurent Natrella plays seven roles and Benjamin Lavernhe handles six and Sébastien Pouderoux manages three.
Denis Polydalès plays a very effective Hamlet. There is no poetry in the translation by Yves Bonnefoy but Polydalès is dramatic, intense and when he goes mad he is really lala.
Gilles David is a natural comedian and he plays Polonius like a comic ready to launch into the monologue of a standup comic.
Gertrude is slutty from beginning to end. Even during Ophelia’s funeral when she says that she hoped Ophelia would have become Hamlet’s wife and that she would have strewn flowers on her bride bed and not on her grave, Gertrude raises a glass and slings down a drink. She tosses a drink in Claudius’s face and she never develops beyond a low-life. A fine performance by Clotilde de Bayser but a Gertrude that is more the product of Jemmett’s imagination than Shakespeare’s play.
Jennifer Decker is a lithe and very attractive Ophelia. She is a modern girl who likes country and western music (they all seem to like it by the number of times they turn on the jukebox) and she is very moving during her mad scene.
Elliot Jenicot plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius grabs a microphone and announces him as if he were the next act at the bar. Rosencrantz is in fact a ventriloquist with a puppet (Guildenstern?) on one hand that he manipulates. It is a clever move by Jemmett.
Natrella, Lavernhe and Pouderoux deserve considerable credit for the numerous roles that they have to play. Changes in costume, wigs and accents make them quite credible even in minor roles.
Alain Lenglet plays a straight Horatio and he is the only major character that holds his dignity. Hamlet and Ophelia go mad and the others are reduced to lowlifes a long way from Elsinore and Shakespeare.
Hamlet has been found in all kinds of places and a cheap bar with a loud jukebox is one for the books but “interesting” is not a high compliment for a director’s flight of fancy that this time does not quite work.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare plays from June 5 and July 25, 2015 at the Comédie-Française, Salle Richelieu, Place Colette, Paris, France. www.comedie-francaise.fr