The Factory’s Hamlet is one of the more celebrated fixtures of London’s theatrical underground. Every Sunday, a company of actors pitch up at a different location, each with a selection of learned roles at their fingers ends. Parts are allotted randomly, and each performance develops in response to the given space, with the aid of props brought along by the audience.
This week finds the company at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Parts are distributed as a result of a game of paper, scissors, stone, and then we’re off on a promenade through and around various bits of the building. As with any set-up in which so much is left to chance and imaginative intuition, the quality of work varies wildly, and not all of the spaces we visit are particularly suited to the company’s ebullient inventiveness. Act II, with actors and audience bounded in a steamy nutshell of a gallery, is a bit of a performative non-starter. But Act IV down a dark alley works a treat, with furtive alliances being brokered in the shadows, and urgent messages furiously signalled from upstairs windows.
The addition of props plundered from the audience also leads to some wonderful, ridiculous and revealing bits of improvisation. Horatio grabs a Superman action figure to stand in for old Hamlet as he describes his martial victories. Claudius and Laertes play a murderous round of Mornington Crescent as they struggle to locate the fugitive Hamlet in a London A-Z. Gertrude announces Ophelia’s death by pouring a stream of water from a first-floor window, before suspiciously snapping the details of her son’s final dual with a borrowed disposable camera.
There are lines I’m never going to hear in the same way again. “Is it a custom?” asks a dubious Horatio, poised to unbuckle after watching a naked Dane belt gleefully across the ramparts. There’s also the best graveyard scene I’ve ever been privileged to witness, in which a toy koala and a flipper help clarify the subtle distinction between deliberate and accidental drowning, before a gravedigger’s decision to start getting his kit off has astonishing and inspired dramatic consequences.
The company even find a fitting finale for the evening, with a stage-full of corpses picking up and humming the plaintive strains of Hamlet’s antic ukulele. It’s all a bit like one of those unpredictably brilliant rehearsals that are infinitely more exciting than the finished product. It’s a production without concept, in which the actors feverishly juggling words, words, words keep revealing brilliant new facets of a familiar text, then tossing them away with spendthrift unconcern. It’s uneven and unrepeatable and incredibly good fun, and it’s all happening again next Sunday. Somewhere.