While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Shaken Shakespeare

There's no shortage of shaken Shakespeares at the fringe this year (ShakesPod, Beat Meets The Bard, Fakespeare, Funk It Up About Nothin’, Burn Out MacBeth...). You can see the logic. Start with something good, attack it from a new angle that will interest the punters - - job done. But these piggyback productions risk being defined by their chosen angle - - it's hard to outdo the bard, and even harder if you rely on a gimmick.

Which brings me to:

7:30pm 12 August 2008

Peter Fanning and John Moore like exclamation marks. They’ve had a hand in writing Jekyll! (1995), Jekyll! – The Revival (1998), Frankenstein! (2006), which the Shrewsbury School have put on at the Fringe in 1995, 1998 and 2006 respectively.

2008’s Harry! is Hamlet reimagined. The Danish Prince is now Harry, the son of a cardboard box company CEO. Ophelia is Olivia, Laertes is Laurie, Polonious is Paul... you get the picture.

Did I mention that Harry! is a musical?

At least you can’t accuse Harry! of relying on a single gimmick to outdo the bard…

Last night was the first performance, and there were teething problems. The opening few minutes were just painful: the music was too loud (there was a strange discordant blang every few bars which made me clench my teeth), and the performers were hardly audible when their mics were working (which they were not always doing). But things settled down, the lyrics became audible, the music stopped giving me flashbacks to my dentist appointment four hours previous, and the story started in earnest.

Even when his mic was on the fritz, it was clear Ben Edmunds (Harry) was a star. I couldn't help thinking this is what Orson Welles would be like in a musical (if Orson Welles could sing…). He was far and away the best performer on the stage. Only when I took the time to scrutinise the performers in lesser roles, and the chorus was it evident these were high schoolers. Sure, they're from the a prestigious independent school whose alumni include Charles Darwin and Michael Palin, so the world expects them to be a cut above your average seventeen year olds... but still, good show you lot.

By the interval, I was quite enjoying myself. The plot had kept close enough to Hamlet that the differences (box company for nation of Denmark, the fact they're singing the whole time) were nice flourishes on top of the bard's solid dramatic foundation. The second act, however, began to diverge further and further from Shakespeare.

The question of whether or not to revenge his father is not played out as an inner torment in Harry!, instead the murderous voice is given to Harry's twin, Henry. As a result, Harry is less interesting and less human that Hamlet. Fanning and Moore (the writers) sacrifice this in order to explore the art versus life / real versus imaginary divide. It makes for a few interesting visual scenes - - the twin clerks Bill and Jack (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) mirroring each other; the body of Harry Snr. appearing from a levitating cardboard box - - but throughout the second half, Harry slips further and further from focus. He certainly doesn't deserve an exclamation mark in the second act (a better title might Claud's Caper!), though Edmunds performance was still at a high level.

In all, it was worth seeing. But I think that will be my quota of musicals and shaken-Shakespeares for the festival.

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