In a darkened rehearsal room somewhere in small-town England, an am-dram director prepares for his production of Hamlet. His idea of a ground-breaking ghost scene is to play O Fortuna, so it’s safe to assume his creative powers aren’t as great he believes them to be. But even this self-important man knows he has a problem: he’s still to cast Hamlet himself. So as the music swells, Simon arrives – a first-time, red-raw actor, who wants to audition for the Shakespeare’s greatest role.
I’ll say this much for I Am Hamlet: it’s a more-than-serviceable bluffer’s guide to Shakespeare’s original plot. If, by some mischance, you’ve made it this far through life without knowing who killed whose daddy and just how the culprit gets caught, then the veil will be lifted by the end of the show. There is a role for plays which explain Shakespeare – of course there is – but realistically, I can’t imagine that anyone who picks this particular play out of the Fringe programme will be ignorant of the basics of the Bardic plot. And sadly, if you’re already in the know, the annotated read-through which forms the middle third of I Am Hamlet grows distinctly dull.
But the story is redeemed by a genuinely intriguing plot twist, which elegantly drives home the often-made point that Shakespeare is still relevant in the modern age. All the way through, it’s clear there’s something not quite right about the visitor Simon: he’s hilariously rude and he can’t act for toffee, yet can quote extended chunks of Shakespeare’s text without so much as a glance at the script. Just why that is, and why Simon is there, emerges towards the end of the play. The turn-about it heralded by a low-key and neatly creepy scene, with does reward familiarity with the closing moments of Hamlet.
Warren Saunders, playing Simon, makes the most of an interesting role. His disdain for Shakespeare is effortlessly, casually funny, and I was particularly impressed by his gradual transition from a faltering newcomer to a commanding presence; Saunders doesn’t change his accent or even his demeanour, but the contrast is unmistakeable all the same. Paul H Bentick, as the director Tom, is perhaps more of a stereotype – filled with pretension, and pride for imagined triumphs – but there’s still room for a well-portrayed collapse, as his ordered world begins to cave in around him.
In the end though, I Am Hamlet boils down to a single idea, which is clever but insufficient to sustain even a trim 50-minute running time. It has its moments, and if it were marketed differently – Hamlet For Beginners, say – then perhaps I’d feel differently about it too. But as things stand, I’m afraid I find it a very capable production of a rather unremarkable script.