No play can bore or tire the viewer more if produced unoriginally or acted weakly, and none can engage, emote nor enthral more if done well, than Hamlet.
This Hamlet, starring Michael Sheen and directed by Ian Rickson (director of smash hit Jerusalem, playing across town), is the enthralling kind. Every director and actor must innovate with Hamlet – the bar is set sky high. These guys pull it off – and then some. Sheen’s is the best Hamlet I’ve seen.
Viewers who arrive early get a backstage journey through the bowels of Elsinore. This new way into the theatre evokes a modern inferno with its cinder blocks, dark passageways and sudden neon glare from naked bulbs. Two men practice fencing in a prison-like, sound-proofed gymnasium. Meat lies broodily on a platter.
By the time we get to the theatre, we’re ready for the tension, rot and dreariness that sets the play in motion. This Elsinore is more like a mental institution – or a communist stronghold – than a palace. Chairs are cheap, plain and plastic – even for royalty. An anteroom that is also Claudius’s office, with a metal desk and grey filing cabinets, is a sound-proofed cell. Heavies in baggy, inmate-esque clothes and staff badges move in and out of it constantly.
Sheen’s high-energy Hamlet is at first endearingly nervous. He grins and giggles, skipping over double-edged words to conceal his anger and grief as the trim businessman Claudius (James Clyde) holds court. As the play progresses past an electric, fascinating Ghost scene, Hamlet’s “antic disposition” takes shape. Sheen rocks his hero between self-loathing, anger, resolution and cruelty, illuminating traditional themes, but doing so with brilliant boldness. His Hamlet is at violent war with himself, more at home with conversation, books and thought than the world of violent, possibly immoral action now required. Repeatedly finding himself caught up in metaphorical outpourings rather than bloody ones, Sheen gives us a Hamlet whose madness is real. Barred from Ophelia (and her loins), he is everywhere surrounded by men more masculine than him: Laertes (Benedict Wong) is breathily hot-blooded; Fortinbras is a warrior, Claudius a sexual predator, his father a terrifying presence.
Madness is not just Hamlet’s problem. It suffuses everything in this institutional setting: the dithering Polonius, the too-on-edge Laertes, and, interestingly, in Gertrude, who seems already unhinged when the play starts. When Ophelia goes mad, broken by her circumstances, she doles out pills rather than flowers to Gertrude and Claudius – a clever touch.
The production brings fresh interpretations to Shakespeare’s most studied play, and unfurls them in a high-tempo, utterly riveting production that anyone from student to banker will find stimulating and moving.
REMAKING a beloved Victorian story with modern edginess is always controversial: those who grew up reading Wuthering Heights will feel passionately attached to their vision of Heathcliff and Cathy; they’ll have an idea of the houses and pace, too.
Andrea Arnold’s production has no truck with your childhood image of Wuthering Heights, nor with traditional period drama. This is a statement movie on several counts: one, Heathcliff is black (in the book he is described as a dark-skinned gypsy) and two: the leading roles – bar Skins’ Kaya Scodelario as older Cathy – are played by first-time actors.
There are problems: the transition between the young and grownup Cathy and Heathcliff lacks feasibility and seems clunky. James Howson as the mature Heathcliff lacks convincing passion – his actorly inexperience is evident.
But in other ways, this is an intensely impressive film. The young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Cathy (Shannon Beer) are fresh and moving in their teenage rawness, love, pain and desolation. And the film’s sense of texture is extraordinary: the amplified sound and constant close-ups of verdant and fecund nature create a haunting tension. Shot from Heathcliff’s perspective, the film is a relentless tumult of thudding biology, life and death keeping faithful time to the rhythm of his and Cathy’s obsessive relationship. This film is elemental and visceral, and will stay with you for days.
THE RUM DIARY
NOTORIOUS journalist and booze/drug fiend Hunter S Thompson wrote The Rum Diary as a novel based on his own rum-soaked experiences. Discovered by close friend Johnny Depp in the 90s, Depp coaxed Bruce Robinson (in retirement since directing Withnail and I) to both write and direct the adaptation in memory of Thompson, after he committed suicide.
It’s the story of Paul Kemp (Depp), an unhinged journalist, who visits Puerto Rico in the 60s to write for the San Juan Star and tries to expose the corruption around him – while off his head on rum. However, the flagging paper’s editor (Richard Jenkins) is happy for him to write about bowling alleys, unwilling to expose the dark side of the American Dream. On top of this, Kemp meets Aaron Eckhart’s corrupt Sanderson, who tries to persuade him to publicise a suspicious money making scheme. There’s also a hot girl (Amber Heard), gallons of narcotics, and plenty of bloodshot pupils involved. Not least from the wonderful Giovanni Ribisi as Moberg, a journalist whose existence revolves around getting high.
Visually stylish drug-induced hallucinations, hangovers in too-bright sunlight, and plenty of slapstick work nicely alongside heavy doses of black humour. However, The Rum Diary – much like Kemp himself – has little focus. After an enjoyable first half, the second takes on too much. Characters are dropped, storylines are hurriedly resolved and the film starts to drag. There’s no tension and an unremarkable central performance. Depp’s Kemp is nothing new – especially if you’ve seen the superior, if flawed, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.
It does, however, have enough visually striking, entertaining moments to lift it above average – even if the plot could do with a severe reworking. Stevie Martin
RAMBLING buildings, dramatic music, a scary bit involving a photograph – director Nick Murphy delivers a good-old-fashioned ghost story. Set in post-war 1921 England in the typically creepy grounds of a boarding school, writer and hoax-exposer Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is called to explain ghostly goings-on that resulted in the death of one of the pupils.
Murphy cranks up the tension and keeps the OTT special effects to a minimum. Instead, he taps into the simplest of fears: it’s dark and there is a ghost running around an old building. Dominic West, as the teacher Mallory and Imelda Staunton as the school’s matron give solid performances, but Hall shines as the intelligent sceptic, becoming increasingly terrified at the possibility of the unknown. Unfortunately the end twist makes no sense and undermines pretty much everything for the sake of having to include a big climax. Aside from the misguided end, it does remain a beautifully shot, chilling tribute to the traditional ghost story genre. Stevie Martin