I’ve seen Hamlet many times, but never as a dreamlike and surreal production in such a grand scale as this. Backed by cabaret post-punk band The Tiger Lillies, the play gains a Brechtian tone through their haunting music and the echoing voice of frontman Martyn Jacques, who addresses both public and actors directly.
Imposing experimental sets, like a tilted room to simulate a downward view and a sea made of actors’ bodies, make an amazing background for the sophisticated spectacle that follows. The cast uses a giant wooden wall of doors and windows in ingenious ways, establishing a metalinguistic narrative where grotesque scenes with exaggerated gestures and expressions are interrupted by other performers, who try to “direct” the action to create a straight, more traditional staging.
Those interruptions can be jarring, but the non-realistic moments weave a beautiful and absorbing magical world. Morten Burian delivers a strong, moving performance as Prince Hamlet, growing more distorted as his mad drive for revenge increases. At one point, he manipulates fellow actors as hand puppets, in a hilarious display of clowning and sharp physical skills (especially by the formidable Andrea Vagn Jensen as Queen Gertrude). Other scenes use dance or slow motion to dramatise elements like the passion between Hamlet and Ophelia.
Throughout the play, the Tiger Lillies contribute the score to the dramatic exchanges, as well as to Jacques’s own storytelling interludes. The resulting multi-sensory texture is thoroughly enveloping, often dwarfing the dialogue. Terror and intimacy alternate in the kaleidoscopic turmoil, to stunning effect. If you’re not familiar with their idiosyncratic musical output, mixing influences from Weimar cabaret, folk and circus, you’re in for a treat from this trio of accordion, upright bass and percussion.
The pairing of realistic and experimental techniques seems convoluted at times, but The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet remains gloriously original from beginning to end. Its brilliant use of movement combined with music left me immediately astonished. This Hamlet creates a real world for the audience to gawp at and get lost in.
The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet. Directed by Martin Tulinius. Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX. 18-21 September, 18:30. £20-30 (£10-20 concessions). www.tigerlillies.com
Get a glimpse into the mind of the Tiger Lillies frontman in Kerry Fitzgerald’s interview with Martin Jacques.