My Fringe Resolution this year was to avoid Hamlet like the plague, but it came to a crashing halt on my first day in town. I was tempted off my chosen path by Spirit of the Dane, which promised "a hilarious romp through the peculiar minds of two of Shakespeare's greatest characters". Tony Cronin (Hamlet) and Julia McLivane (Lady Macbeth) certainly find numerous ways to poke fun at Shakespeare’s most arduously monologue play. And yet, at about the halfway point, it stops being a comedy and becomes exactly what people are afraid of – a series of pondering, cerebral speeches with few laughs.
The premise of the show is simple enough: Hamlet and Lady Macbeth chat in the eternal "intraverse" about their plays, William Shakespeare, and terribly misguided modern adaptations of themselves. It has little discernible plot, and though that’s not automatically a bad thing, it does mean that Spirit of the Dane seems more of a character study than a "play".
But for the Shakespeare-lovers this production is aimed at, that difference shouldn’t matter. The first twenty minutes are charming; Tony Cronin is wonderful as an arrogant, fed-up, whiny Hamlet, who is tired of constantly being projected on by humanity, and jealous of the characters in other plays for having better lines. He has some genuinely enlightening and hilarious insights into his character – my favourite being that Hamlet is the consummate layabout university boy, one that might be seen walking the hallowed halls of Oxbridge, pondering in melancholy and refusing to engage with the real world.
When his dramatic performance of Macbeth’s "She should have died hereafter" calls in Lady Macbeth, we’re introduced to a softer version of the iconic character. Although McLivane’s interpretation is still ballsy, sexually charged and very Scottish, she inspires a lot more empathy than the original play allows. It’s an interesting take, and very well-acted, though I’m not sure I completely buy the underlying theory.
The real problem with the production is this: after the first ten minutes of Lady Macbeth poking fun at Hamlet, it all becomes repetitive. There are far fewer genuinely funny moments, and Cronin’s previously brilliant Hamlet seems to wither into insignificance. Aside from McLivane’s window into the story of Lady Macbeth’s lost child, most of the profound revelations about Shakespeare and human nature are made in those excellent first twenty minutes. Towards the end, I found myself becoming confused about why the production was billed as a comedy in the first place.
Ultimately, Spirit of the Dane is a play that has either branded itself badly, or still hasn’t decided what it wants to be. Despite the great acting, the wisdom of its character insights, and the few good laughs it does provide, I think the show missed its mark. It might be a good choice for students learning about the value of Shakespeare, or the classic theatre enthusiast looking for new insight. But for a truly comedic Fringe Shakespeare experience, I'm afraid I would look elsewhere.