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Review of Hiraeth’s production of Hamlet at Riverside Studios

Hamlet at Riverside StudiosI thought I had come to the wrong theatre. The poster said ‘Hamlet’ but what I saw was a bare stage, a couple of prison officers, and a wall of bars. After a while a new prisoner (Adam Lawrence) was led in, stripped, dressed in prison uniform and led away – the bars were wheeled around  and turned into prison cells. All in silence. It might not have been Hamlet, but it was gripping. However, it was Hamlet. This production was by the Hierath Company, founded in 2012,  dedicated to creating exciting and stylistically innovative theatre in and around London.’ If this is their purpose, they succeeded admirably. The new prisoner was Hamlet, a gangster’s son, in a prison somewhere in the north of England. His crime was unspecified, but lo, in prison he met his old mates Barnado and Franciso, learned that his father’s ghost appears at night, and we were off to the familiar story of murder and revenge .

Hamlet’s dead father has been supplanted this time by a rival gangster who has taken power and married his mother, again, as usual. Joyce Greenaway makes a perfect gangsters moll in dark glasses and a tight black skirt ; she would not have been out of place in a television gangster series.

From the start, the pace was terrific, the action tense and brutal, and everyone spoke ‘trippingly on the tongue’ that is, clearly  with attention to the verse. The accents were Northern, the words were by Shakespeare, the diction was flawless. The play became contemporary and alive; although I have performed in this play, I really wanted to know what would happen next.

The convention that we were in an English prison  forced a large number of cuts and alterations to the text but it also allowed for some wonderful moments: Hamlet learns of his father’s ghost from two mates in a canteen queue; they plan their meeting  in whispers, in order not to be overheard by the guards. The ghost scene was particularly good: a couple of matches are struck, flicker and go out, and in the darkness, the ghost appears, as if lit only by his own presence. He spoke as he probably did in life, as Hamlet’s father, not like an RP deity on an echo mic. The result was believable and genuinely creepy.

The production is full of similarly wonderful imaginative moments: Hamlet’s ‘what a piece of work is man’ was spoken against noises of men laughing and talking in the background; it put Hamlet in  a real place, within the context of a real society. The pain and anger with which Adam Lawrence spoke (and this was true of his entire performance) was stunning. And Polonius’ death was staged in a way that cast anew light on the characters: Hamlet tossed both the words ‘Thou rash intruding fool farewell,’ and the body  aside as if they were as unimportant as in context, they are. Anthony Kernan was an excellent Polonius (although it’s fair to say I have never seen a bad Polonius), his blustering self importance giving a realistic minor pathos to his death.

As the evening went on, the  company seemed to trust the convention enough to let it go and allow Shakespeare’s words to dominate, which, in this gifted company, was a good thing.

I loved this production on the whole, but I have one or two reservations. In order to maintain the convention, it was necessary to make a lot of cuts and shifts in the play, and to change several speeches to make them fit. In the case of Polonius this worked well. In other scenes it did not. The gravediggers, for instance, had to be eliminated and their parts almost rewritten. I am no fan of the gravediggers scene, and the company managed to inject more humour into other scenes in the play, but they serve a purpose and it felt like cheating to change them into entirely different people, involving such major changes to the text, although it was almost alright with me because Darcy Vanhinsbergh made such a complex and moving character of Laertes. While I watched the play, it occurred to me that the characters who benefit most from this kind of convention are the smaller parts, like Barnardo, Francisco and Marcellus – they are not only there to support the action, they are there to testify, as it were, to the validity of the production. It also benefits Claudius, giving him more definition and edge. I saw Russell Barnett some years ago as Satin in The Lower Depths and was underwhelmed; as Claudius he was attractive in a dangerous way and fascinating even when not speaking. On the other hand, the biggest loser was Ophelia: in this version the character had no  context and had to perform in a vacuum. She seemed to be in a different play, which she was – she was in Hamlet but her Denmark had disappeared .

While the convention made the production physically uneven, it succeeded triumphantly at the end, with a boxing scene perfectly indicated by a large rope and the fight and all those subsequent deaths genuinely moving.

Altogether, it was a most enjoyable, dramatic and bloody evening, although it it true that for me the text had been so changed it was almost a different play, loosely based on Shakespeare, which I both minded and didn’t mind. I didn’t mind for all the reasons above, but I minded because the question kept arising: why have you made this choice? If one has to cut and shift and add expletives, then one is not exactly interpreting in the play in a new way – one is twisting and rehashing to create something else out of it.

What did this add to the play? Why did I feel that for all its virtues, the play is diminished rather than enlarged or deepened by this?  What was revealed? What passion made them decide on this interpretation? What was the point? If it was to provide an entertaining evening, they succeeded.

Review by Kate Beswick


Her Majesty’s Prison Liverpool.
G Wing.
Hamlet is incarcerated.
His father has been murdered.
The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge ….

From the Director and Producer of TITUS ANDRONICUS, ‘the most exciting fringe production’ of 2013 (Evening Standard), comes a visceral and unflinching exploration of isolation, paranoia and revenge.

Hamlet is the son of the city’s most infamous crime lord. Locked up in Her Majesty’s Prison Liverpool, he learns of his father’s murder, his mother’s marriage, and his uncle’s treacherous role in both. But how do you get revenge in the custody of corruption and the company of snitches? Cut to just over two hours long, Hiraeth Artistic Productions’ HAMLET will be an unstoppable and violent modern thriller: the Bard behind bars.

HAMLET will be the penultimate theatrical production at the Riverside Studios before their two year closure for expansion and refurbishment, and promises to take a fresh, bold and exhilarating look at one of literature’s most celebrated plays.

Performance dates:
28th May – 22nd June 2014,
Tuesday – Sunday, 7.30pm
Schools Matinees: 4th & 18th June, 1.00pm
Running Time:
2 hours 10 minutes including one interval.
Age Restriction: Age 14+ (partial nudity)

Tickets are available from www.riversidestudios.co.uk or 020 8237 1111

Hamlet , Riverside Studios
Creative: Writer – William Shakespeare, Director – Zoe Ford, Designer – Anna Reid, Lighting Designer – Jack Weir
Cast: Hamlet – Adam Lawrence, Claudius – Russell Barnett, Gertrude – Joyce Greenaway, Polonius – Anthony Kernan, Laertes – Darcy Vanhinsbergh, Ophelia – Jessica White, Horatio – Lewis Howard, Rosencrantz – Chris York, Guildenstern – Nathan Whitfield, Francisco – Damian Escayg, Bernardo – Jack Greenlees

Monday 2nd June 2014


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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