“How can we know what we’re capable of”
Premiered in 2010, Prince of Denmark is Michael Lesslie’s prequel to Hamlet and coming out of the National Theatre Connections programme, it has a strong teen focus making it an ideal part of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s season at the Ambassadors Theatre. Set some 10 years or so before the events of Shakespeare’s play, Lesslie focuses on the younger inhabitants of Elsinore and imagines how they might have interacted as teenagers, sowing the seeds for what we know is to come.
It is a slight piece, barely an hour long, and director Anthony Banks has wisely decided to augment it with atmospheric sequences – whether the testosterone fuelled swordplay, including some very nifty foot flicks, or the beautiful harmonies of musical interludes, there’s a sense of teenage ennui being batted away at every turn as life in the royal court trundles on. At the heart of it is Hamlet, the prince who thinks he wants to be treated like a normal man, but with the arrival of brother and sister Laertes and Ophelia comes an increased emotional volatility.
Lesslie and Banks have fashioned between them a pseudo-Elizabethan language – at times poetic and almost Shakespearean, at others much more pragmatically naturalistic and all spoken in native accents, lending an immediacy and intent of purpose to much of the prose. James Laurence Hunter’s Hamlet straddles princely poise and petulance well and Niall McNamee and Louisa Beadel make an appealingly hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Daisy Whalley’s Ophelia needs stronger definition as the young woman figuring out if and how to use her sexuality but Simon Lennon excels as the broodingly manipulative Laertes.
Prince of Denmark just about stands on its own as a piece of drama but there’s much more pleasure for those who know Hamlet. Major themes are prefigured as in Laertes’ recognition that his sister can be a bargaining tool for his own advancement, the social hierarchy of the(ir parents’) court is reinforced in every interaction between these young’uns, there’s even overt foreshadowing of key events from the future. The cumulative effect is intriguing rather than compelling though, probably best sampled as part of a double bill with Romeo and Juliet than taken on its own.