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Hamlet at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre

It’s well known that the Prince of Denmark is a gloomy kind of chap who mopes around a lot. Usually, this is put down to the death of his father and the actions of his mother and uncle but, maybe there is a different explanation. An idea that is explored by Series2 Theatre Company in their production of Hamlet at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre.

Hamlet at the Lion & Unicorn TheatreIn a basement flat, Hamlet (Joseph Ryan-Hughes) is mooching around. He wanders back and forth in a distracted manner clutching a pamphlet in his hand. As he finally sits, he hears a strange sound which scares him. The source of the sound is his friend Horatio (Alex Dean) who has fallen asleep. He is there to support Hamlet whose father has recently died. It is a difficult task for Horatio as Hamlet is not only inconsolable but is also starting to suffer from paranoia, even questioning Horatio’s motives for visiting him. As time goes on, Hamlet’s coping mechanism doesn’t really seem to be working and, if anything, is making his paranoia worse, but Horatio stands by to support his friend.

Harry Reed, who is the adaptor and director has done something very unusual in this production. They have taken Shakespeare’s script and taken out all the dialogue except between Hamlet and Horatio. This gives the audience a chance to really concentrate on the relationship between the two characters and particularly how Horatio tries to support his friend. And I have to say that as an idea it really works and makes for a fascinating sixty minutes of theatre.

The writing is a major part of this of course, and let’s be honest, you can’t go wrong with original Shakespearean text, but in order to work the production relies on two very strong actors who can not only bring their own character to life, but also establish that true bond of friendship that the play requires. Ryan-Hughes and Dean have got that link and, as such, give the story a wonderful air of reality. The characters are so different in temperament and energy. Ryan-Hughes’ Hamlet is edgy, nervous, sometimes frenetic, and always teetering on the edge. Dean’s Horatio is quieter, more introspective, often not physically doing much but still being a part of the action. Both actors nail their parts beautifully and whether they are playing chess or fighting on the floor, it all feels just right.

The set is nicely basement flat student/young person chic, with a big old sofa covered in throws and piles of magazines all over the place. It feels homely and reflective of Hamlet’s personality before the problems of his world bore him down.

All in all, this is an unusual but very good Hamlet. The idea of just using the two characters works on the whole, though the part where Hamlet and Horatio watch the ‘play’ on television felt, to me, like it needed a little bit more work as it didn’t really flow in the same way all the other parts had. Having said that, for a production that has taken a tragedy as its premise, Hamlet has some surprisingly amusing moments – I mention Yorrick at this point – and is very entertaining. The show works well thanks to two very talented actors not only delivering those wonderful words, but actually being in the moment so that the audience feel they are travelling with them on Hamlet and Horatio’s story.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

This modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous play is guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve seen before. This production focuses solely on Hamlet and Horatio, giving us a unique insight into their relationship, whilst maintaining the original text. We meet Hamlet and Horatio in their rundown basement flat, 2 months after Hamlet’s Father’s funeral. As they navigate the wilderness of grief together, unhealthy coping mechanisms manifest not a far more dangerous reality.

WRITTEN BY: William Shakespeare
OTHER CREATIVES: Cast: Joseph Ryan-Hughes as Hamlet & Alex Dean as Horatio
RUNNING TIME: 60 Mins (No Interval)
WEBSITE: series2theatrecompany.com

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1 thought on “Hamlet at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre”


    When I was invited to see a one-hour performance of arguably Shakespeare’s most famous play, I confess to being intrigued but also rather dubious that this could be accomplished in an effective way. I am happy to admit that my doubts were entirely unfounded. This version of Hamlet focuses entirely on the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio with many lines written for various other characters here attributed to Horatio. In the hands and voices of these two fine young actors, that language is brought to life in poignant and evocative ways without ever sounding forced or unwieldy.

    The action is set, not in the castle of Elsinore, but in a dingy, windowless dwelling inhabited by two students, one of whom appears to be suffering from some form of manic depression or bipolar disease. They get stoned together, fall asleep, fight in play and for real, play chess, converse, argue and watch TV together – all exactly as one would expect from two student flatmates.

    But Hamlet is hallucinating, either drug-fuelled or via paranoia and psychosis: betrayed, grief-stricken, consumed with suspicion and desire for revenge, becoming increasingly frantic in his efforts to uncover the truth of his father’s death and unveil the guilty party. Hamlet’s descent into ultimately suicidal state is explored in a performance characterised by peaks of frenetic energy and troughs of dispirited desolation, so perfectly conveyed by Joseph Ryan-Hughes. Ryan-Hughes possesses a wonderfully fluid face and vast range of expression, both facial and vocal, which, allied to his dynamic movement and jittery demeanour make for an utterly compelling performance. His rendition of that most famous of speeches “To be or not to be” was worthy of a professional actor and signalled a depth of understanding and interpretation beyond many others.

    Alex Dean gives an equally enchanting performance, his generally serene bearing the perfect foil to his fevered colleague. In the dramatic personae of the full version of Hamlet, this appears: “Horatio, friend to Hamlet”: “friend TO Hamlet” not “friend OF Hamlet”. That little preposition changes the entire picture and how superbly this was reflected in Dean’s depiction. For the entire duration of this intense turbulence, Alex Dean’s Horatio stays true and loyal to his tormented friend, even when he briefly leaves the stage to Hamlet or momentarily shouts back at him, his care and concern are unwavering and palpable.

    Harry Reed’s script provides a perfect vehicle to explore this relationship and effectively showcases his conviction that Horatio is “a good guy”. He places Horatio with Hamlet at the beginning when his first illusion manifests and at the unbearably poignant end, when he cradles the body of his friend in his arms and speaks one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful lines like a benediction: “Goodnight, sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”.

    The gloomy tone and march to the inevitable culmination were relieved at times by moments of genius comedy and slapstick physical theatre, but essentially this was Shakespeare’s tragedy distilled to two inseparable elements. The test of any piece of art for me is – does it stand a second look? Would I read this book again? Would I watch this film a second time? Would I watch this version of Hamlet again? With these two actors, this script and this direction, I absolutely would. My biggest beef is that this deserves a far wider audience and I really hope these reviews garner sufficient interest to provide the opportunity for another run.

    After all, The play’s the thing!

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