There are many ways to shake up a theatre. At Shakespeare's Globe, Emma Rice ruffled feathers (and energised audiences) with a series of productions that overturned the Globe's original ethos with a liberal use of lighting rigs and other boldly anachronistic flourishes. Her reign there, full of glorious theatrical moments, ended ignominiously after barely a couple of years.
Her successor Michelle Terry (a skilled Shakespearean performer but not a director; she has instead cast herself as an actor/manager – very original practices) is also determined to shake things up, although not, sadly, by illuminating the wooden O with a disco-ball. Instead she has committed to gender-blind casting (and colour and disability blind, come to that) across all shows and remained true to her word by casting herself as Hamlet in one of her two inaugural productions (the second is As You Like It, written, like Hamlet, around 1599).
In truth, there is little unusual about this. Gender-blind Shakespeare has been a staple of the London stage for years. (Terry herself played Henry V at Regents Park in 2016). What is different is Terry's decision to not always appoint a director. Instead, this Hamlet has been a collaborative process in an open rehearsal room, and we know this partly thanks to some exceptionally luvvie-ish programme notes in which the ensemble talks about “responding collectively,” developing an “understanding and openness with each other” and “not settl[ing] on ways of delivering our text but to keep on exploring what these words mean to us.”
Possibly not a great deal would be the churlish conclusion to that. It's rare to see a Hamlet that feels quite so empty of meaning as this one. Terry herself is perfectly all right, skulking around the plain-as-plain-can-be stage in black beanie hat and anorak like some lost teenage goth in a Danish medieval court. She bristles with teenage cruelty and fury, and delivers the verse with stinging lucidity – a hallmark of this production is the clarity of the verse speak, a real asset when performing at the Globe. Yet there's precious little by way of poetic heft or depth and almost nothing at all by way of overarching interpretation.
There are some fine supporting performances. James Garnon's Claudius struts about like a puffed up chicken, full of blustery – if benign – self-importance. Richard Katz's Polonius never fails to prompt a laugh. And Shubham Saraf is a movingly sincere and earnest Ophelia. But other decisions feel downright strange. Terry swaps her goth gear for a white clown suit in about the crudest signpost of Hamlet's antic disposition I can remember. Or perhaps it's meant to be ironic. Who can tell? And while it's a good move to cast the deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah as Guildenstern, not least since other cast members communicate with her using British Sign Language, why is her Guildenstern also lampooned, notably by Hamlet, for using BSL? It doesn't make sense.
Terry seems to want to move towards a Peter Brook style of theatre, where actors and audiences inhabit the same empty space with the shared purpose of uncovering some sort of theatrical essence and purity of meaning. But you don't need to fall very far short of this noble ideal to produce a piece of theatre that is disproportionately mediocre. This is a flatly boring Hamlet. It's early days of course, but Terry's tenure is off to an inauspicious start.