They say that history is written by the victors… and while nobody exactly wins in Hamlet, wicked Uncle Claudius clearly loses most. Robert Cohen’s witty one-man show aims to redress that balance, taking us behind the scenes in Claudius’ court as the events of Shakespeare’s plot unfold. It’s evident from the off that the newly-crowned king has some serious work to do: reforming the state, restoring his pride, rescuing his people from the “knavery” of his brother’s misrule. Along the way we also learn a few home truths about the Danish royal family… and discover that, alas, “poor” Yorick was really to blame for it all.
The language of Cohen’s play is a delicious blend of faux-Elizabethan – filled with knowing ’tis’s and wherefores – and soundbites reminiscent of modern political spin. There are witty echoes of Shakespeare’s script, and the whole monologue is delivered in a wearily ironic tone; this is a man who’s clearly exasperated by both his sulky nephew, and his indolent, incompetent staff. At times the bitterness grows poetic and lyrical, but there are frequent sharp one-liners too, poking creative insult at characters we recognise from the Bard.
And you will need to recognise the essentials of Hamlet to enjoy this show to the full. Much of the pleasure lies in knowing in advance just how Claudius’ plans are doomed to fail, and further intelligent entertainment comes from watching a familiar tale from another perspective – usually, with caustic commentary tacked on. The love affair between Hamlet and “that Ophelia” is reduced to a gossipy soap opera, which Claudius describes (at least at first) with wryly indulgent amusement. And the murder of Polonius is a true comic highlight… even though we experience it only vicariously, through Claudius’ disbelieving report of events that happen off-stage.
The humour ebbs and flows more than it builds – and although I laughed both hard and often, the performance didn’t quite hit the comic heights I felt it could have done. I wanted to see Claudius’ character pushed that little bit further, so that his world-weary misanthropy and punctured dignity came even more clearly through. But there’s a serious side to the portrayal as well: Cohen presents a credible theory of Claudius’ true motivations, and shares his pain and disappointment at the accusations – false accusations, he assures us – levelled by those who once were close to him.
So there’s some “proper” Shakespearean analysis tucked in there, yet it’s done with a comic lightness that makes the show’s 70 minutes fly by. Something Rotten is a deceptively clever piece, but I’ll remember it most for its laugh-out-loud in-jokes – and for Cohen’s inspired portrayal of the care-worn Claudius, helplessly despairing at the rotten things around him.