Review: Hamlet Part II at the Hen and Chickens

If you’ve ever wondered what happened next after the tragic conclusion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) an answer can be found in the snappily titled Hamlet Part II from the Theatre of Heaven & Hell, returning to the Hen and Chickens after an acclaimed run at this year’s Camden Fringe. Whether it’s the answer Shakespeare had in mind I’m not totally sure, but one thing is certain: it’s a lot of fun.

Fun? I hear you ask, and not without good reason. After all, most of us know how Hamlet (Part I) ends – bodies all over the stage and Denmark’s entire royal family wiped out in one bloody encounter. Making a comedy out of that scenario would take some doing, you could suggest. And yet when you stop and think about it, there actually is something slightly comical about a play in which every character gets wiped out; it’s so extreme that it almost crosses the line from tragedy to comedy.

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Writer Perry Pontac seizes upon this blurring of genres and runs with it, picking up not only on the excessive quantity of corpses but also the many other slightly ridiculous elements of Shakespeare that we all put up with because – well, it’s Shakespeare. The flowery language; the drawn-out death bed speeches; the Fool who talks complete nonsense; the soliloquies that none of the other characters ever hear, even though they’re standing two feet away… all make an appearance. The story’s also packed with references to Shakespeare’s other plays – some subtle, some not so much; you don’t have to be a major literature buff to find the humour in this very accessible show.

Part of Pontac’s ‘Codpieces’ trilogy, the story sees Seltazar (Darren Ruston) return home to Denmark, met by court librarian Fornia (Elena Clements) who reluctantly unfolds the recent tragic events; her list of the dead is so extensive she has to check them all off on a clipboard. Together, with a bit of ‘help’ from a passing Fool (Nicholas Bright), the two attempt to figure out who’s left to take over the throne – but just as they hit upon a solution, the rightful king (Brian Eastty) appears… and it’s not who you might expect.

All four cast members give it their all, though it’s Darren Ruston and Elena Clements who take centre stage as Seltazar and Fornia; their evolving love-hate relationship really is a hilarious joy to watch from beginning to end. And director Michael Ward finds opportunities for humour even when nobody’s saying a word; the opening moments are particularly enjoyable, and so totally unexpected it’s almost impossible not to laugh.

A common complaint about Hamlet is that it’s too long; there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, and – let’s be honest – it’s not exactly the cheeriest of tales. No such problems with the sequel; at just 45 minutes, any hanging around is very much part of the joke, and unlike its predecessor, Pontac’s parody is genuinely a laugh a minute, whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or not. Though I can’t promise nobody dies in this one – it is still Hamlet, after all.

Hamlet Part II is at the Hen and Chickens until 10th December.

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