Reviews: Hamlet, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow & Kill Johnny Glendenning, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Hamlet Citizens

Theatre, Glasgow

Until October 11


Kill Johnny Glendenning

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until October 11;

Transferring to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

October 22 to November 8


Reviewed by Mark Brown


Three-years into his reign at the Citizens Theatre, Dominic Hill’s directorship has already been hailed as a “golden age”. No production (not even his award-winning Crime And Punishment) justifies that accolade quite so abundantly as this Hamlet.

A more sure-footed, intelligent, inventive and scintillating presentation of Shakespeare’s great tragedy it is difficult to imagine. When Nicholas Hytner directed Rory Kinnear as the Dane for the National Theatre of Great Britain (and a worldwide cinema audience for NT Live) four years ago, the London critics heaped laurels upon his head. Hill’s modern dress staging is a far superior production.

It is, for a start, a much more nuanced affair. Playing on Tom Piper’s excellent, stripped back set (which looks like a disused warehouse), it creates a dangerous world in which everyone, not just Hamlet and Ophelia, teeters on the psychological brink.

Brian Ferguson as Hamlet
Brian Ferguson as Hamlet

Cliff Burnett’s superb Polonius, for instance, is an audacious departure from the verbose-but-avuncular character of popular perception. After a few drinks the mask slips, and his paternal concern for Laertes is replaced by a creepily incestuous, horribly violent tyranny over Ophelia.

At the head of a universally brilliant cast is fine young Scottish actor Brian Ferguson. Clearly a lover not a fighter, his prince is, by turns, captivating in his inward contemplations, brutal in his sarcasm and explosive in his indignation. Not since I saw a young Mark Rylance play the Dane for the Royal Shakespeare Company some 26 years ago have I witnessed an actor perform the role with such subtlety, complexity and robustness.

Indeed, these qualities characterise the work as a whole. With its brooding, premonitory aesthetic and its unnerving sense of capriciousness (both aided by tremendous live music and sound) it is, by any reasonable measure, a world class production.

If Hill scores a very palpable hit with his Hamlet, Mark Thomson, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, also has one on his hands with DC Jackson’s outstanding new comedy Kill Johnny Glendenning. Although, like his acclaimed Stewarton Trilogy, it opens in his native Ayrshire, the play is a breathtaking departure from the rest of Jackson’s oeuvre.

Set in a fetid, remote farmhouse (which doubles as a black hole for the victims of notorious Glasgow gangster MacPherson) and the well-appointed flat of tabloid hack Bruce Wilson, the play does, in some ways, for Ulster Loyalism what Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore did for Irish Republicanism. However, whereas McDonagh’s Mad Padraic (a man who takes refuge in the INLA because he’s too violent for the Provisional IRA) is entirely fictional, the biographical details of Jackson’s Johnny “The Bastard” Glendenning seem remarkably similar to those of Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair (the convicted Loyalist terrorist who famously settled in Troon after he was exiled from Northern Ireland by the UDA).

Jackson weaves together the mutually familiar worlds of organised crime, paramilitarism and tabloid journalism with the skill of a darkly comic master craftsman. There are, typically of the Ayrshireman, tremendous set piece gags (particularly about reggae band Aswad and terrible painter Jack Vettriano).

The play is beautifully structured, with great characterisations and gorgeous acting throughout. David Ireland, in particular, gives the performance of his career as the psychopathic Glendenning, as bleakly hilarious a creation as anything to come from the over-active imagination of McDonagh.

A slightly edited version of this reviews column was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 28, 2014

© Mark Brown


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