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NZ Fringe 2014
By William Shakespeare
Written & directed by James Cain
Presented by Sceptre Theatre

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 10 Feb 2014 to 14 Feb 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 11 Feb 2014

What a piece of work is this: the immediate aftermath of the Hamlet debacle. They're all dead: Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet … Not to mention Old Hamlet, whose ghost lit the fuse of vengeance in his studious son, and Old Fortinbras who died at his hand thus giving his own son a revenge motive. And Yorick, of course, of relatively natural causes. Only Horatio, Hamlet's sole trusted friend, is left (apart from Osric and the odd other courtier).

James Cain's play begins with the dying Hamlet (Ryan Knighton) beseeching Horatio (James Cain) to “Absent thee from felicity a while, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.” But the guns and drums that herald the arrival of young Fortinbras (Jed Davies) interrupt proceedings before Horatio can bid his sweet prince goodnight and consign him to an eternal heralded by singing angels. 

We never do see the mysterious Felicity but Horatio's sister Imogen (Miryam Jacobi) returns from Wittenberg to comfort her brother, not least by singing ‘The Willow Song' (Desdemona's lament from Othello), which is poignantly apt, given the location of Ophelia's drowning.

Indeed Oliver Devlin's sound design and Rowan McShane's lighting design evoke the brook beautifully and a brolly-skeleton festooned with strips of white cloth (uncredited) represents the willow tree. Anna Stuart's splendid costume designs are Elizabethan which is unusual nowadays. 

Cain has chosen to recycle and replicate Shakespearean language and in parts it works a treat although the dialogue exchanges are often too clipped – just a few words each at a time – to capture the rhythm and flow of iambic pentameters. And just a couple of times he throws in an “OK” or modern usage expletive which subverts the sense of time and place, probably intentionally but such devices could be crafted to have more impact.

The plot is clever and keeps us guessing with its judicious recycling of a brother-sister relationship, assumed madness and a play-within-the-play to catch the new king out. As a script it has great potential but some elements need attention.

Although it's made clear Fortinbras assumes the right, as king, to snuff the life of anyone who displeases him, the downward pressure this should put on Imogen in the face of his unwelcome advances is not utilised as well as it could be. Despite Miryam Jacobi's beautifully nuanced performance in every other respect, I simply don't believe she believes this man now has status as her king. And nor does he. A crucial opportunity to generate dramatic tension – which could also produce comic relief – is therefore lost.  

I'm not sure if it is the script or performance that chooses to make a drunken buffoon of Fortinbras at the very times his power needs to be palpable but given Cain is the director as well as the writer and lead actor, the responsibility lies with him. While I applaud his clear commitment and drive to get this work on stage, my feeling is he has proved its potential sufficiently for an outside eye – a dedicated director, and a dramaturge too – to take it to the next stage.

There is plenty to relish for Shakespeare scholars and Hamlet aficionados but its intentions are greater than mere pastiche. I look forward to its next iteration.
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