Who hasn’t occasionally wished Hamlet was a bit shorter? As we take our seats for this interval-free, 65-minute version for young audiences, eight-year-old Hilda is amazed it can be three times as long. This is the first Shakespeare play we’ve seen together, though she knows A Midsummer Night’s Dream from CBeebies and recently read the book To Wee or Not to Wee, which has supplied some key details. “Hamlet’s a student,” she says. “His dad’s murdered, there’s going to be a war and there’s a ghost. Then some more stuff happens.”
Jude Christian’s adaptation, directed by Tinuke Craig, turns out to be the stuff that dreams are made on. It’s funny, shocking, suspenseful and moving, with convincing central relationships – not always the case with Hamlet. Frankie Bradshaw’s stylish design has a chessboard stage, a geometric grid of lights above and a green-and-gold colour scheme that weirdly matches the school uniforms in the stalls.
Most importantly the young audience is drawn right inside the story. This isn’t just through the actors’ opening crowd work or the way the kids create sound effects and chant “mur-der-er!” before the play-within-the-play. It’s because, from the opening funeral scene, the emotional bonds are so keenly felt.
At the cortege for Old Hamlet, the wreath spells out “King” but Kiren Kebaili-Dwyer, as Hamlet, clutches another that says “Dad”. His disorientation amid mourning is sustained throughout. Hamlet’s horror at his mother’s remarriage is heightened by making him not just an onlooker at Claudius’s proposal, flinching as they kiss, but also a guest at the wedding party, even forced to lead the conga.
There is a canny economy in characterisation during that party: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are comical MCs and it’s not just Vedi Roy’s killer moves on the dance floor that mark his Claudius out as dangerous. “Think of me as of a father,” he tells Hamlet, a heavy emphasis on “me” highlighting vanity and power. Later, Hilda finds it hilarious that this super-villain is himself cast as the baddy in The Murder of Gonzago.
Understanding the strength of sibling relationships within a young audience, Christian focuses on Ophelia (Jessica Alade) and Laertes (Chanel Waddock) who become sisters in this version. They conspiratorially mock Polonius (David Ahmad in recognisable “embarrassing dad” mode), anticipating his advice before he gives it. Hilda wonders which sibling is older. I’ve never considered this but it’s a sign that she is putting herself in their shoes and also comparing this sisterly relationship to her own.
Young or old, audiences need to believe in Hamlet and Ophelia’s romance. The lines from his love letters are set to music here: Ophelia sings his words, just as she later speaks some of his soliloquies. It makes this a shared tragedy, echoed in the eventual appearance of the ghost (a bewitching bit of puppetry requiring four performers) and a simple yet striking veil motif that unites each character upon death.
The adaptation calls on children’s particular sense of moral indignation, especially in friendship betrayals and inconsistent behaviour from grownups. Hilda fumes at the disparity between Claudius and Gertrude (Claire Redcliffe): “How come he wears the cape and fancy stuff and she only has a crown?” A subtle parallel develops between the young audience’s innocence and Ophelia’s purity.
Shakespeare is customarily diluted for children so I wonder if they’ll obscure some of the killings. Far from it: Hilda is shocked when Polonius dies and asks if Hamlet will go to jail. Plots become so familiar to us but there is a gasp from the row in front as a boy asks in disbelief – spoiler alert – “Are they all dead?!” And Laertes’s despair seems overwhelming when Hilda says sadly: “Her father’s died and her sister’s drowned.” When the hour is up, the play feels new to both of us.
At the Dorfman, National Theatre, until 6 April and touring to schools.