FILM: Tarzan (dir. Chris Buck and Kevin Lima)

Tarzan marks a significant step away from the musical structure of the Disney renaissance; there are still plenty of songs, only now they’re non-diegetic and sung by Phil Collins of all people. This small change has a fascinating distancing effect, reminiscent of Oliver & Company with that film’s combination of character-sung numbers and jaunty pop score. While at least one (‘You’ll Be In My Heart’) is a choon, it also serves to keep the viewer that little bit distant from the action, as if we’re watching the film filtered through a musical narrative lens.

A man in loincloth holding a spear hangs from a tree.
Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.

This is the film that marks a turning point: the last Disney feature of the twentieth century (ignoring Fantasia 2000) and arguably still the last one to tell a relatively straight version of a classic property; while at the same time making notable advances in its use of CGI and stepping away from the musical form. It’s also a surprisingly derivative film, both in its retreading of themes from The Jungle Book and in the revisiting of a colonial narrative recently explored in Pocahontas. But although it’s destined to remain in a liminal position as the tipping point at which Disney started getting a little bit shit again, it’s a strong film in and of itself that’s surprisingly winsome, especially in its central relationship.

The film’s main problem is a bizarre tonal mix that combines jeopardy and slapstick in ways that make seriously unclear what the stakes are meant to be. The film opens with Tarzan’s parents abandoning a burning ship with him still a baby, a scene which looks like it’s meant to play seriously but turns immediately into a jolly Swiss Family Robinson romp as the parents build a tree house in the jungle; this is intercut with a harrowing scene in which two gorillas, Kerchak (Lance Henrikson, the only male ape, who appears to be the father of all the ape children, though the film judiciously looks in the other direction) and Kala (Glenn Close) fail to save their own child from being killed by a cheetah. Then later, Kala stumbles upon the treehouse to find Tarzan’s parents dead and rescues the baby from (another? the same?) cheetah, thwarting the scary cheetah through a series of slapstick maneuveres. The animation is great, but the film undercuts its own achievement in both comic and tragic directions with repeated tonal clash.

Happily, the film finds an even keel as it starts re-doing The Jungle Book. Young Tarzan (Alex D. Linz) is, within the culture of the jungle, effectively othered. He can’t keep up with the young apes (including his frenemy Terk, who in Rosie O’Donnell’s performance appears to have made a wrong turn leaving Central Park Zoo) and Kerchak refuses to acknowledge him as a son. But Tarzan commits himself to becoming as ape-like as possible, and in training montages we see him growing up and swinging through the jungle. The CGI animation is impressive here, Tarzan’s flights through the trees evoking everything from skateboarding to rollercoasters, and the 3D background whizzing around in beautiful detail.

And as he grows up, he meets Jane. Jane is a non-traditional Disney heroine – she’s relatively normal looking for one – and Minnie Driver’s voice performance makes the film. She’s ditzy, posh, full of fun, and most importantly – across the passage of time where she meets Tarzan, teaches him English, and learns about the jungle from him – there is a genuine sense of them falling in love as a side-effect of trying to learn from one another. Jane is highly accomplished as an artist, and as she captures Tarzan and mimics him before her father (Nigel Hawthorne), so too does Tarzan mimic her and learn what it means to be human. There’s a huge amount of optimism here – the idea that by learning to be like the other, one can come to fully understand them – but in the context of a Disney film, it plays empathically and surprisingly convincingly.

The tonal problems emerge again at the end, as the plans of the evil Clayton (Brian Blessed!) to capture Tarzan’s family lead to betrayal, confrontation, and the surprisingly brutal deaths of Clayton (whose silhouette is seen hanging from a creeper) and Kerchak. And the decision of Jane and her father to stay in the jungle and become tree people themselves is a little trite. But the film traces a convincing arc of mutual acceptance and of coming to terms with your own upbringing (which is pleasingly validating of adoption – it is quite clear throughout that Tarzan’s ‘true’ family are the apes, rather than his bloodline), and in its two-way portrayal of cultural exchange, it even redresses some of the issues of Pocahontas.

FICTION: N.K. Jemisin, ‘The Elevator Dancer’ (Orbit)

The shortest story in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection of short fiction, ‘The Elevator Dancer’ is a beautifully efficient sketch of a dystopian society and the stress fractures that inevitably occur in any such carefully managed world. As part of a series of speculative fictions, the focus here is less on the world-building than on getting directly to the psychological effects; one doesn’t need to know the details or parameters of this society to understand the story’s twist on the near-archetypal story of repression and attempted escape.

Cover of 'How Long 'Til Black Future Month?' featuring a profile of a Black woman wearing pearls and hair ornaments.
The iconic profile is reminiscent of coinage.

The central figure is a nameless security guard, who spends his time watching the monitors. This is a world where everyone knows they are under constant surveillance, and the man is clearly part of the system; he knows exactly how his fellow security guards will react to his own transgression of normal behaviour, which might even include running down a corridor. The society expects a controlled, modest behaviour, and is influenced by Christian ideologies (he attends Bible study and church weekly).

He is trapped in routines and rhythms. In the most depressing sequence of the story, he describes going home, eating dinner, helping with the washing-up (an aside here makes clear that this is not proscribed as women’s work, which of course reveals that the society does proscribe work for men and women), watching TV (which includes a break for prayers along with commercials) and having routine sex. The careful evocation of suburban middle-class life here is important as a kind of ideal; both his ‘modest house’ and ‘modest wife’ were assigned to him, and this kind of ‘modest’ aspiration suggests a society which has oriented itself away from personal gain and ambition.

Personal desire enters the equation, though, as the security guard starts seeing a woman who dances in the elevator. When he first sees her, she is dancing the mashed potato; at other times she varies it. He watches her daily, and importantly she only ever dances when she is alone, doing so frantically and whole-heartedly, then stopping before the elevator arrives at its destination. The woman is attractive to the security guard, but it is her action rather than her appearance that is described. It’s not only the liberated, illegal act, but the way she contains it so perfectly, that seems to be attractive; in her movements, the guard sees the possibility of excitement, of something individual and beautiful.

Inevitably, the attraction leads to an attempt at action. He knows that the woman must know that cameras are watching her, and this leads him to take his own risks, breaking his own routines to try and bump into her in the workplace; and later, even rushing headlong down the corridors in order to meet her lift before it arrives at its destination. He isn’t entirely clear what he’s going to do if and when he does meet her; in this society, there is no way he could be with her when he is married. But that kind of future thinking doesn’t actually matter in the end; what emerges from his watching her is his need to disrupt the routine and to engage in a moment of abandon.

That moment is, inevitably, undone. He can’t find her; the lift is empty, and at a sinister-sounding ‘camp’ he learns to understand that she was a hallucination (the veracity of this is impossible to confirm). But it leaves him musing on a version of the old proverb that if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one around to hear it, it makes a noise as God wills. His question now is – why would the tree do something as mundane as make a noise? Why wouldn’t it dance? And in the act of doing that, in according agency to the tree rather than to God, the guard shows that he has continued to move beyond what is allowable within this society; this dystopia cannot contain his freedom of thought.

FICTION: Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic (Corgi)

It’s perhaps surprising to revisit the first Discworld novel, some thirty-seven years after it was first published, and find just how accomplished it is. While it lacks some of the formal innovation (Pratchett’s legendary footnotes are a rarity here) and deep parody, it’s a compelling introduction to an impossible world that seems remarkably fully formed and expansive. And in Rincewind, Twoflower, The Luggage, Hrun the Barbarian and Death, author and world-builder Terry Pratchett creates iconic fantasy figures for the ages.

Book cover for The Colour of Magic, featuring a luggage trunk on legs mounting a table surrounded by people.
The inevitable reaction to Easyjet’s new policy.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Colour of Magic is that it’s a picaresque novel told in four discrete sections (with titles), and with Rincewind and Twoflower reintroduced at the start of each (including, at the start of the fourth section, with references to some adventures we haven’t seen), actually perhaps works better understood as a short story collection. The effect is enhanced by the multiple narrators and viewpoints who chip in and focalise the story before moving on; and given the extent to which Rincewind and Twoflower (literally a tourist) are passengers in their own adventures, what tenuous through-lines connect the story are superficial at best. That’s no bad thing, especially as the repeated resetting of the story leads to plenty of variety.

The episodic nature also enables Pratchett to set up his universe in ways that will inform the whole series. Opening chapter ‘The Colour of Magic’ is perhaps the most influential in this respect, centring as it does on the great city of Ankh-Morpork that will become the Discworld’s most important location, and which is already established here as a sprawling, messy, selfish metropolis. It is to this city that Twoflower is drawn, keen to see the heroes and history of a city that has long since outgrown its legend. Rincewind, the only person in the city who can speak Twoflower’s language, is a cowardly failed wizard who, nonetheless, happens to carry within him one of the eight most powerful spells in the world, with no idea what it might do. Rincewind is a brilliant protagonist through which to be introduced to the Discworld; partly because in his role as guide to Twoflower, he is forced to look at and appraise the world around him; and partly because his disillusionment about everything combines a tone of over-familiarity with reflective criticism as he tries to distance himself from a world that has it in for him.

Rincewind’s tale is one of repeated bad luck (revealed in the second chapter, ‘The Sending of Eight’, to be at least in part the consequence of a literal game of dice being played by the gods) and constant jeopardy, with Rincewind’s combination of cowardice, resourcefulness, luck and divine intervention somehow allowing him to survive, despite the repeated frustrated appearances of Death waiting to collect his soul. Particularly in chapters 2 and 3, as Rincewind is in turn threatened by a group of vindictive tree nymphs, a magical devourer, and a tribe of dragon-riders, he is figured almost literally at a pawn, his attempts to run away turned immediately into heroic attacks. Twoflower is a hilarious companion, utterly oblivious to the levels of danger he finds himself in and quite happy to take photographs with a little box containing a demon artist instead of running for his life; yet Twoflower’s Roadrunner-like capacity for survival seems to also protect Rincewind.

But the plot is always less interesting than the deep world-building. The Colour of Magic is in so many ways an inversion of our own world, to the point that Rincewind finds himself wishing for some kind of systematic form of experimentation that would take the place of magic. At one point, he and Twoflower literally cross dimensions into our own and find themselves in a modern aeroplane, before popping back to the Discworld. And in Twoflower, an insurance clerk, Pratchett showcases the earliest of his spot-on satires of the modern world, as he sells insurance to a witless tavern owner who proceeds to burn down his own inn and, along with it, half of Ankh-Morpork. In these sequences, Pratchett establishes the potential of the Discworld to hold up a twisted mirror to our own world and offer darkly funny reflections.

But this is also a high fantasy novel, nowhere more explicitly than in ‘Close to the Edge’, which imagines life on the Rim of the Discworld, where the waters of the world spill endlessly over the edge and past the four elephants and great turtle on whose backs the world exists. It’s here that the more fantastical tropes – such as the Terminator-like Luggage with its unerring loyalty to Twoflower, and a society of religious astronomers preparing to drop a spaceship off the edge of the world to ascertain the sex of the turtle on whose back their existence depends – come into play, and lead to a thrilling conclusion in which Rincewind departs literally from the world. And his equanimity in the face of Death’s deputy, Scrofula, who turns up to collect his soul but makes a right balls-up of it, is a powerful ending to the book, where even the most cowardly of men realises that he really has now seen it all. It’s a confident start to a long-running series, and still thoroughly enjoyable.

TELEVISION: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, ‘Pimemento’ (dir. Michael McDonald)

The new dynamic of Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s seventh series is both comfortably familiar and pleasingly fresh. With Holt (Andre Braugher) busted down to uniform, and a different guest star every week providing focus for both comedy and intrigue, the episodes are allowing a focus on the interpersonal dynamics of the main cast while not sacrificing each week’s individual story. ‘Pimemento’ is a perfect example, and the first episode of the new season to be structured around a returning guest star, the always-welcome Jason Mantzoukas as Adrian Pimento.

Two men stand on a ledge.
‘Baby steps, like this’ ‘You’re not moving!’

In the main plot, Pimento returns to the Nine-Nine suffering from short-term memory loss, which Jake (Andy Samberg) declares the coolest thing in the world as it’s the plot of Memento. No-one has seen Memento; they have, however, seen Finding Dory. The best running gags centre on Jake’s film geek tendencies, as he communicates his outrage that no-one else watches grown-up films; a gag beautifully turned on its head when Pimento reminds Jake that Memento wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s first film and that he sounds pathetic.

Pimento thinks someone is trying to kill him, and much of the first half of the episode is flat-out farce as Jake and Charles (Joe Lo Truglio) have the same repeated conversations with Pimento as his memory resets in front of them and he freaks out about where he is. Mantzoukas’s manic energy is enough reason to watch by itself, and short-term memory loss is a perfect development for a character who in many ways is already stuck in a particular groove; the usual difficulty that the regulars have in getting through to Pimento is turned into the plot itself.

The unfolding of the episode’s main plot then beautifully borrows from Memento (exacerbating Jake’s frustration that no-one knows the film) as they begin decoding tattoos on Pimento’s body (including his bank account details and the revelation that someone has already seen them and robbed him) and work out that it is, in fact, the doctor who is prescribing his pills who is trying to kill him – and, in doing so, causing the short-term memory loss. The doctor (a great guest turn by Jim Rash) is wreaking revenge on Pimento for uncovering his affair, and the attempt to rescue Pimento after the doctor recaptures him results in a lovely scene on a ledge (with some great special effects) as Jake and Charles try to escort a panicked Pimento back to safety.

But while Pimento’s antics are the episode’s main focus, it’s a crisis story that gives weight to Charles and Jake’s conflict throughout. Jake hasn’t told Charles that he and Amy (Melissa Fumero) are trying for a baby, and he’s torn up about not being able to share it with his best friend. Realising that Pimento will forget it, he shares the news, only for Pimento to somehow remember it amid his memory resets and blurt it out to Charles. Watching Charles be genuinely angry at Jake is always funny (especially as Charles typically over-reacts), but the moment at which Jake confesses how much it hurt him not to tell Charles is genuinely quite moving.

The combination of hilarious and moving is what makes the Nine-Nine’s interactions with one another so compelling. In the b-plot, the rest of the cast are forced to take a six-hour conflict resolution seminar; after Amy tries to get them out of it by memorising the seminar in advance and giving all the correct answers, the trainer (Paul Welsh) forces them to talk about their own office conflicts, leading to a very funny multi-way slagging off as the group unleash all their petty grievances at one another (‘Oh, Terry’s got peeves’). The story goes literally nowhere, but it’s a reminder of how much fun it is to spend time with this group, and how a sitcom built around a cast of characters who fundamentally care about one another is perhaps what we need right now.

FICTION: Bernardine Evaristo, ‘The White Man’s Liberation Front’ (New Statesman)

Bernardine Evaristo’s short story ‘The White Man’s Liberation Front‘ is her answer to Noughts and Crosses, a snapshot of a society where entrenched privilege is reversed and middle-class white men are among the most put-upon members of the community. The protagonist, Brian, is a sad sack of a man – an aggrieved white male online activist, trying to imagine a world where people like him can be accepted and recognised for their own selves. It’s a dark parody, simultaneously critiquing both societal racism and white male privilege.

Illustration of a man sitting alone in a garden shed.
There’s something timely about Brian’s isolation.

Brian has it hard. He and his wife Pamela are both academics; she’s an over-promoted Professor based on a slew of articles, while he languishes at lecturer level despite working on his magnum opus which he expects to be field-defining. He teaches large seminars and holds down the laboursome Admissions Tutor role while she swans around with tutorials, and commandeers the large spare room as her study because of all her books. Since moving to a house and area that suits her, ‘he has simmered with resentment ever since’. And so begins a drunken lashing out against a world that is simply unfair.

As bottles of wine pile up, Brian engages in his online activism. Under a false name (presenting himself as a much younger man, in a telling bit of projection) he rails against the world – criticising societal structures that keep men down, ads that reinforce stereotypes, and cultures of #everydaymisandry. He gets obsessed with statistics, even timing the amount of time his dad tries to speak for before his mum cuts him off. At the same time, he reflects bitterly on his own lack of self-worth – he used to show off his legs as Pamela is a ‘legs woman’ who liked him wearing shorts around the house, but the body positivity movement came too late for him as he aged; he also reflects on being trapped in a marriage without options for leaving, albeit he allows himself to lust after his younger undergraduates.

The problem of Evaristo’s story is the same problem that haunts much literature that tries to comment on a contemporary problem through reversing the situations – it risks diluting its own message by trying to argue two things simultaneously. On the one hand, there’s a valuable dissonance in imagining an alternative universe where straight white men really are treated disadvantageously, the uncanny reversal of roles drawing attention to serious, real problems in today’s world. On the other hand, Evaristo’s tone perfectly skewers the pathetic whining of white dudes who feel that the world is turning against them and disadvantaging them in favour of women and people of colour. But putting the two together, Evaristo runs the risk of making it sound like people who rail against social injustice are the pathetic figures.

Of course, a more flexible reading allows the reader to navigate between the two positions to take what is intended – that this is predominantly a criticism of men’s rights movements that also acts as a rema inder of all of the privilege that men continue to enjoy in everyday life. And more comically, it’s a scathing imagining of how poorly white dudes would be able to handle it if they were to be at the receiving end of societal injustice. As Brian gets wasted and ends up throwing up all over his house and sobbing pathetically about his awful life, even as Pamela returns home having fucked her sporty toyboy three times in two hours, the story is unsparing as it revels in this sad, angry little man self-destructing. He’s awful – in one moment of reflection, we hear how he deliberately tripped up and injured his 8-year-old niece when she was boasting about wanting to be prime minister – and remorseless, using the real and perceived slights against him as justification for vindictive bitterness.

Ultimately, the book’s success and weakness hinges on it capturing the rhetoric and self-pity of men’s rights movements so well that it becomes unclear quite how much these issues are in Brian’s head, and how far they are borne out in real life. As an indictment of this kind of mindset, it works fantastically, skewering the ways in which men attempt to explain their own failures. But with an eye on the broader world-building which seems to suggest that there are grievances, it risks gaslighting in its suggestion that those who feel oppressed by structural racism are their own worst enemies. As such, the story’s success is qualified, but it’s a vicious, entertaining read.

THEATRE: One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean (dir. by Nicholas Hytner for National Theatre At Home)

The first of the National Theatre At Home screenings – the National’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, repurposing previously released cinema screenings for home viewing – is an unabashedly populist choice. James Corden, loathe him or hate him, is now a bona fide global celebrity and is in his natural element heading up a fast-paced, gloriously self-indulgent farce; and Richard Bean’s canny script brilliantly pastiches classic British farce, sitcom and end-of-pier tropes – right down to the casual homophobia, racism, sexism and xenophobia – to create an entertainment with the same mix of innuendo and nostalgia as a smutty panto, with the same intended broad reach.

James Corden's One Man, Two Guvnors among National Theatre shows ...
‘What a Country Life!’

Of course, this isn’t without its problems. In many ways One Man, Two Guvnors is an abhorrent play. While it’s knowingly parodying dated tropes, it’s also indulging in them, and in having it both ways it serves to reinforce bigotry. When Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) reacts to one revelation with the line ‘That’s very Japanese of him!’, one can hear a clever critique of the public schoolboy, Empire-inheriting class’s casual bigotry, or one can just hear flat-out, punching-down racism at a time when people of East Asian origin are being attacked in the streets out of fear and misplaced blame. The show is clever in its pastiche; it isn’t clever enough to effectively challenge and progress beyond what it parodies, though. In this it reminds me of Upstart Crow – a series that laughs at a theatre establishment refusing to cast people of colour while itself having an entirely white main cast. Mainstream British comedy is due a reckoning with itself.

But with that massive caveat out of the way, the NT’s One Man, Two Guvnors is a brilliant vehicle for some exceptional comedy performances. At the most simple level, everyone completely nails their stock figures and standard devices – Suzie Toase’s Dolly’s massive asides to the audience are a great example of a way in which a hoary convention is made funny precisely because of its awkwardness, while Fred Ridgeway’s Charlie ‘The Duck’ has such tortuous rhyming slang and geezer bluster that he might as well be on Only Fools and Horses. The artifice is made more deliberately self-conscious as the scenery moves back and forth during a Keystone-Cops style multiple-doors chase during which Francis (James Corden) runs impossibly quickly back and forth after two different malefactors, sometimes turning somersaults; when his body double ‘accidentally’ wanders across the stage after Francis has finished, it’s a hilarious moment of conscious badness.

And on top of the pitch-perfect recreations of stock figures, the show repeatedly draws attention to instances of virtuoso skill. When Francis first enters, he is throwing peanuts up into the air and catching them in his mouth, including (allegedly) managing to catch one even when falling backwards over a chair. The musical interludes between acts, where the cast come out to join the fantastic skiffle band (Grant Olding’s songs are a thing of wonder), are the most overt venue for this: Corden’s xylophone playing, Daniel Rigby’s belly-slapping solo, the women’s Andrews Sisters tribute, Chris’s elaborate horn honking, Trevor Laird’s steel drum – these demonstrations of actorly skill, learned especially and performed live, are key to understanding the whole play as showcase for talent.

And when the cast are on top form, there’s no matching them. Chris was born to play Stanley Stubbers, in the second-best performance of the night. With hair coiffed like Jude Law’s character in A.I., and a voice borrowed from Ace Rimmer, Stanley Stubbers strides through Brighton with all the confidence of the posh boy and a string of quite extraordinary bon mottes and anecdotal wisdom. His perfect smiles, flashed quickly to the audience in pantomimic asides, are perfectly delivered, a walking narration of his own life. But the best performance by far is Tom Edden’s Alfie. What feels like it should be a bit part is in fact a tour de force of physical comedy – from the tremors as the ancient waiter slowly attempts to bring a plate setting to a room, to the spectacular pratfalls as doors are slammed into his face, to his sudden burst of energy as his pacemaker is turned up to 9, Edden steals every moment he’s onstage, and is the breakout performance.

But none of this would be possible without Corden’s showmanship throughout. As the harlequin figure (as he explains in an impromptu lecture) he’s charged with driving the whole thing forward, and his easy charm makes the whole thing work. He’s especially good working with the audience members (both plants and real) who are brought up onstage at different times, and there’s so much skill in the way he makes scripted banter with ‘interruptions’ look like corpsing and improvisation. The physicality of his performance is fearless, and his management of the Act One climax, during which he tries to simultaneously serve dinner to both his guvnors, is consummate. There are problems with the play in its often thoughtless recycling of problematic tropes, but there’s no denying that the recycling is very, very well done.

THEATRE: Hamlet by William Shakespeare (dir. Thomas Ostermeier for The Schaubühne)

The opening sequence of Thomas Ostermeier’s legendary Hamlet offers an audacious statement about the production’s tone and aesthetic. Following ‘To be or not to be’ being projected in close-up onto a gauze hanging in front of a feast, the production shifts to the burial of Old Hamlet, with a substantial coffin positioned downstage of a muddy graveyard. As the assembled courtiers look on sombrely, an actor aims a hosepipe up in the air to create rain, and a hapless Gravedigger grapples with the coffin, attempting to lower it safely while stumbling and slipping and dropping the coffin. The combination of clowning and severity foregrounds the weight and substance of Old Hamlet’s coffin, a weight that will haunt the production.

A man bestrides a coffin while lowering it into the ground, while others stand behind under umbrellas a a man aims a hose into the air.
Clowning and grieving set the tone.

The Schaubühne has been putting a different production online every night, and Ostermeier’s hugely influential Hamlet is a fabulous inclusion for those who haven’t had an opportunity to see it. Given this production was filmed in 2008, it’s remarkably well directed. The camerawork is fast and dynamic, and works intuitively alongside the onstage camera work – allowing, for example, the projected images of characters delivering soliloquies and reports to fill the entire frame, and using reverse angles to frame actors in iconic positions against the lights. And the cameras also capture the vast space of the Festival Theatre at Avignon, into whose auditorium the actors occasionally venture as characters attempt to colonise the world outside their own, whether for understanding or for control.

The production is propelled – literally, at times – by Lars Eidinger’s magnificent Hamlet. Wearing a fat suit, he’s a physically imposing figure; when he slams a hand on the tiny Ophelia’s (Judith Rosmair) shoulder, you can hear the force. Eidinger’s performance is memorably physical, established early on as Claudius speaks to him at the wedding feast and, without flinching, Eidinger pitches face first into the mud of the main stage, a perfect faceplant repeated later for effect. This Hamlet’s mad scenes are dangerously unhinged, disrupting normal interaction, even in as small a moment as him running with open arms towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and missing them entirely. The physical thrill is sustained for two and a half hours of unbroken performance during which the actors almost never leave the stage, and the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes (Stefan Stern) is visceral and brutal.

The physicality is part and parcel of the violence of Hamlet throughout. The nunnery scene is especially shocking, as Hamlet manhandles Ophelia and buries her alive in the mud; his physicality is replicated when confronting Gertrude, played again by Rosmair. And this violence is made increasingly visible in Hamlet’s frantic lashing out, which is partly for effect and partly an enactment of his repressed rage. During Claudius’s prayer, Hamlet covers his head with plastic sheeting and smashes red liquid (ketchup, I think) into the head, viscerally mimicking the violence he wants to enact. Hamlet is regularly accompanied by a live camera, throwing his actions up onto the curtain that bisects the stage, and this gives his actions a public angle exaggerated further by his use of a hand-held mic; Claudius (Urs Jucker) does the same throughout, and the two competing for dominance of the message is a recurrent feature of the action, especially as both venture into the audience to plea personally on their own behalf.

The public performance also feeds into the comedy. The slapstick of the opening scene is part and parcel of Hamlet’s unpredictable violence, and the flailing of Eidinger’s ungainly – yet clearly athletic – body is comically disruptive. The disruptions are also verbal – Hamlet switching to English for a parody of a DJ, where he makes first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and then the audience engage in call-and-response – and grotesque, especially in ‘The Mousetrap’, where an underpants-clad Player King and Hamlet himself as the Player Queen strip down and play an oversexed version of the romance and murder with the help of squeezy sauces. And sometimes the comedy is more simple, as when Hamlet leans on Polonius’s (Robert Beyer) unresponsive corpse while casually telling Claudius what he has done with it.

The graphic symbolism – which repeatedly uses the banquet table and its food to stand in for bloody acts – allows the production to draw liberally on motifs of horror. The most effective of these comes in Rosmair’s first transition between her roles as Gertrude and Ophelia. At Gertrude’s wedding, she sings a sultry song to her new husband; then, in slow motion, her voice breaks down into shrieks and snarls, inhuman sounds, as she reaches up and pulls off her wig, as if she’s turning herself inside out. The uncanny horror returns throughout, especially at the end as the characters force themselves into a grotesque tableau behind the banquet tables as they are killed, and begin burbling in overlapping words. They are pulled out of view as Hamlet turns to the audience and, just as the voices all stop in unison, there is dead silence as the production ends on his ‘The rest is silence’. It’s a powerful ending to a powerful production.