The opening minutes of this collaboration between Copenhagen’s Republique Theatre Company and the redoubtable Tiger Lillies promise so much. Kicking off with a witty reworking of the wonderful Gin in which the word ‘Sin’ has been substituted, the scene is set for a characteristically grotesque exploration of Elsinore’s murky moral universe.
But this initial thrill dissipates quickly. The title is something of a misnomer for one thing, as the Lillies don’t really perform Hamlet. Yes, they have written some songs with a vaguely Hamlety theme but there’s a real failure of integration at work here, the production shunting forwards in a clunky song-text-song-text format, their music interspersed with anaemic breezeblocks of Bard, a pattern made all the more wearying by some patchy performances.
The theremin-voiced Martyn Jacques, who as ever looks as if he’s been sucking on an inky lemon, remains a compelling stage presence, perhaps too compelling in this case as he constantly draws the eye away from Morten Burian’s bland, blonde Dane. Indeed, you soon start to wish Hamlet would stop his swithering so the singing could begin again. This despite the fact that the project seems to have cowed them considerably: the song-writing lacks its usual exuberance, the lyrics veering dangerously close to the generic in places, a feeling which only intensifies as the production drags on.
Jacques’ role is never clearly defined: just who is he supposed to be in this world? What is he supposed to represent? Is he a facet of Hamlet’s psyche, an impish emissary from some other realm, or, more prosaically, just a panda-eyed master of ceremonies? There’s a recurring puppetry motif which is also never fully developed or justified. Characters are suspended by strings or turned into living ventriloquist’s dummies. There are occasional moments when the aerial work is striking, as when a horizontal Hamlet drifts dreamily across the stage or a drowning Ophelia writhes in mid-air before a backdrop of roaring water, but in terms of psychological insight it’s pretty sketchy stuff.
There are other more glaring issues with the production. The international nature of the project results in a new variant on gender-blind casting: accent-deaf casting. So Scandinavian Hamlet is paired with a Slavic Claudius who occasionally appears to be channelling Count von Count (one poisoned goblet, two poisoned goblets, bwa-ha-ha).
Martin Tulinius’ set is a kind of rain-lashed Rachel Whiteread construction by way of Playschool (Claudius and Gertrude can occasionally be spotted frotting through the square window) which descends – very slowly – to the floor in a manner reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr, only without the energy or element of surprise. And there’s the rub.
One of the real problems here is that of pacing. The whole thing most closely resembles Hoipolloi’s lamentable attempts to stage Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest, with too many scenes tediously over-stretched. The Tiger Lillies are many things, but rarely are they boring. Here there are instances when a sustaining glass of gin would really have been appreciated (only the curmudgeonly QEH won’t let you take one in) and the whole thing makes you ache to dash home and remind yourself of how good they can be when on form. Hamlet is robust enough for most things, be it dreamthinkspeak turning the text inside out in The Rest is Silence or Michael Sheen’s Cuckoo’s Nest Hamlet at the Young Vic, but here it seems to have been criminally bled of much of its life and heat. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the final duel between Laertes and Hamlet in which the two men stand at opposite ends of the stage and jab and wag their tainted foils at empty air. The failure to connect is palpable.