A musical version of ‘Hamlet’ probably doesn’t rank high on the list of great stage ideas. Just writing that sentence down makes one shudder, the title suggesting the worst episode of ‘Glee’ that you’ll ever see. However, for a European touring production of Shakespeare’s epic drama, the Danish acting company, Theatre Republique, have collaborated with England’s arch purveyors of accordion-led dark cabaret, The Tiger Lillies, to create a particularly bleak modern-dress interpretation of this famous revenge tragedy. Their interpretation places special focus on the character of Gertrude, presented as a devious ‘whore’ figure (‘I am a living bordello’ she sings at one point), complicit in both the murder of her first husband (Hamlet’s father) and the prevention of her son’s primogeniture. As such, the songs convey a particularly damning view of an immoral court, where licentious desire, deceit and betrayal are commonplace. The double album’s opening track, ‘Sin’, sets the lyrical and atmospheric tone of the existentialist nightmare that subsequently unfolds, one inhabited by those who ‘rot from the inside / completely depraved’.
The Tiger Lillies have a strongly defined sound, consisting of songwriter and vocalist Martyn Jacques high falsetto vocals and mournful accordion, Adrian Huge’s tin pots and squeaky toys drum kit, and Adrian Stout’s lush double bass and musical saw. Their ability to create an atmosphere of seedy melancholia has been honed over two decades (this is, after all, a band who named an early album ‘The Brothel to the Cemetery’). Stout’s bass playing is deceptively simple. On the one hand his preference for sustained root notes with the occasional flourish may be viewed as overly simplistic in its approach; on the other, his use of space for the deeply rich, warm tone he employs is almost genius in its minimalism. It is as though Philip Glass were conducting Charlie Haden at his most economic. He centres the music, grounding it with a stable core. Only when the pace quickens, on tracks such as ‘Stay Away from Him’, is his dexterity allowed to flourish. The fluidity of his work on the closing track, ‘Desolation Song’, exemplifies his nous when working within the particular confines of the Tiger Lillies format. The album overall is a fine example to all bassists of how less can often equate to so much more.
As the play (and the second CD) continues, the inertia that plagues Hamlet – his inability to act in light of the wrongs done to him – combines with his guilt over Ophelia’s suicide. This downbeat dramatic tone is reflected in the claustrophobic nature of Jacques’ doleful tunes which, whilst working admirably within the theatrical context, begin to sap the listener’s spirit when listened to in isolation, away from any visual accompaniment. However, that withstanding, there is still much to like about this work. The Tiger Lillies exist in a world entirely of their own creation, and if you’ve not visited it before, then this is a worthy first port of call.