The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we have put our reviews of several productions of Hamlet on one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
2000 - Simon Russell Beale 2000-2001 - Samuel West 2001-2002 - Ben
Whishaw 2004 - Toby Stephens 2004 - Ed Stoppard 2006 - Edward Bennett
2008-2009 - Jude Law 2009 - Rory Kinnear 2010-2011 - Michael Sheen
2011-2012 - Andrew Scott 2017 - Paapa Essiedu 2018
Mark Rylance, Shakespeare's Globe Summer 2000
Hamlet, like all Globe productions, is competent but just barely, pitched with the least possible ambition toward being clear enough to hold the attention of the American and Japanese tourists, a goal that it does not accomplish (I happened to be sitting next to an exit, and the wandering in and out among the groundlings was constant.)
I wasn't impressed by Mark Rylance's infamous pajama-clad Hamlet at the RSC a decade ago, but if anything this one is decidedly inferior. (He does get to wear a nightshirt in one scene and wrap himself in a blanket in another; is this an ongoing theme in his career?)
His portrayal, and the production as a whole, has no depth or visible interpretation, simply the desire to get through all the words and not bump into the furniture.
Rylance is evidently an excellent producer and manager of the company, but he is not a particularly impressive actor. He certainly lacks any star quality or stage presence; if he doesn't do something gratuitously flashy every few minutes, like throw himself on the ground and wail, he is in constant danger of becoming invisible.
His voice, a weak, tremulous tenor, has no shadings, and he tends to speak in a thin monotone so that the words turn into isolated and meaningless syllables.
Some of the soliloquies sound as if they had been learned phonetically by a non-English speaker, though 'To be' is at least clear, if not particularly insightful.
The rest of the cast seem chosen and directed to offer no competition to this non-dimensional Hamlet. Tim Woodward's Claudius is a thug, with none of the moral complexity other actors have found in the role, while Joanna McCallum's Gertrude is matronly and nothing more.
James Hayes plays Polonius as just a comic fool, an interpretation long out of fashion. Mark Lockyer's Laertes is modern and conversational, and seems to have wandered in from some other play.
Penny Layden offers the production's one hint of originality as Ophelia begins to lose mental control right after the Nunnery scene.
Such consistency means that director Giles Block has chosen not to offer his actors any guidance into characterization or understanding of their lines.
His blocking is also minimal. Every set-piece -- the Nunnery scene, the Play, the mad scenes, the graveyard, the duel - is staged in exactly the same way it has been done a thousand times before, as if he were following the directions in a Samuel French amateur theatre text.
As I have said before, any Shakespeare fan should see one production at the Globe, just for the experience, and I suppose Hamlet is as good a choice as any.
You might want to do what I watched a lot of people do: buy a cheap groundling ticket, wander in for 15 minutes or so, and then wander out again, treating it as part of the tour rather than as a performance to stay through.
Simon Russell Beale, Lyttlelton Theatre Summers 2000 and 2001
Simon Russell Beale is not the first actor one would think of as a potential Hamlet. Far more a character actor than a lead (For those who don't know him, think of a pudgy Dustin Hoffman type), he has, however, a knack for using his lack-of-handsomeness as a character key. And he uses it here to bring some interesting overtones to an otherwise disappointing production.
His Hamlet is a man uncomfortable in his own skin and awkward in any social situation, called upon to do a task for which he is simply unfit, so that he must fight to alter his own personality before he can act.
This is clearest in the Nunnery scene, as he and Ophelia (Cathryn Bradshaw) sit on opposite sides of the stage like a boy and girl at a school dance, and he can hardly look her in the face as he tries to break up with her. It's there also in the Where's Polonius scene, as he actually pulls a knife on the king (Peter McEnery) and then meekly lets his confident enemy take it away from him.
What gives this Hamlet poignancy is that he is aware of what an awkward little man he is, and can often laugh sardonically at himself; and Russell Beale finds surprising and ultimately sad little jokes in a lot of unexpected places.
The text has been shaped to keep the focus on this less-than-heroic Hamlet. Fortinbras and all references to a political world outside Elsinore have been cut, and secondary characters have been pushed very much to the background.
On the other hand, so much energy has been devoted to creating pretty stage pictures that the show sometimes has the feel of a big rock musical.
Tim Hatley's design is built on about two dozen steamer trunks moved about in various patterns, and about as many chandeliers raised and lowered in various permutations; and there is an almost constant sound track, varying from incongruous seagull calls to barely-heard chanting and church music.
The play opens with a slow procession of the cast from niches in the walls to be met by Simon Day's Horatio, and it isn't until the process is reversed at the very end that we realize that he is evidently visiting them in their graves and the whole play is a kind of flashback.
Director John Caird seems to have searched out these larger effects to the neglect of his actors. Even Russell Beale hasn't developed Hamlet's spiritual journey beyond the hints of a personality he has found for the character, and the central question of how he finally becomes able to act is not really answered.
Others, for the most part, settle for the most minimal characterizations. Denis Quilley is a purely comic Polonius in the very old-fashioned manner, with no hint of the man's dangerous political savvy (He also doubles as a cheery Gravedigger).
Cathryn Bradshaw's Ophelia is just a pretty face, while Sara Kestelman's Gertrude and Simon Day's Horatio are virtually invisible. And I defy anyone to believe that the country bumpkin Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Christopher Staines and Paul Bazely were ever Hamlet's best friends.
When so many of the supporting cast are left at such loose ends, there's a directorial failure to blame. Only Peter McEnery finds anything interesting, as his Claudius moves from what seems like sincere paternal affection for Hamlet to the steely self-confidence of the unrepentant villain.
And maybe only someone seeing his 100th Hamlet would notice these things, but the direction is full of small clumsinesses. In the Ghost scene our attention is called to the fact that Hamlet carries no knife, so he has to conveniently find one lying around for the others to swear on.
In the Play scene he plants himself in the one spot onstage where he can't possibly see the king's reaction. All the asides and direct addresses to the audience are awkwardly done, like the most obvious of 19th century melodrama.
This production is scheduled for a six month tour after a brief London run. At the moment it is only what was once called "good enough for the provinces." One can only hope that the actors will grow more deeply into their characters with time.
Certainly Simon Russell Beale has the potential of building on this beginning to discover, in time, a really interesting Hamlet.
Samuel West, Barbican Theatre Winter 2001-02
There is much to like in the Royal Shakespeare Company's new Hamlet, and most of it is called Samuel West.
The attractive young star gives an excitingly natural and contemporary feel to the Danish prince, wiping away almost all the clouds of overfamiliarity and dead poetry that hang over too many productions.
Steven Pimlott's very modern-dress production has occasional infelicities but for the most part provides a clean, crisp setting for the drama.
Elsinore is quickly established as a modern political operation, in which courtiers wearing security badges constantly jockey for pre-eminence in the king's eye, and Claudius himself is a polished political animal.
Later, Ophelia's madness interrupts a formal cocktail party, suggesting a world more upset by the violation of protocol than by her anguish.
But it is West's contemporary student Hamlet who absolutely dominates our attention, with totally realistic behaviour and the striking ability to make the oft-heard lines sound as if newly thought of at the moment.
Among other pleasures, this means that the usual bane of modern-dress productions, the anachronistic clash between language and visuals, is all but gone, and almost never do we feel that this modern young man is incongruously poetic.
What we do feel is his pain and aloneness, his wild mood swings, his self-laceration, his lashing out at those (Ophelia, Gertrude) he feels have betrayed him, and finally (It doesn't come until he sees Fortinbras' army) his reconciliation to the task imposed on him, and the peace that brings him.
The soliloquies are all delivered in a casual, intimate way, as if we the audience were a close friend with whom he could think out loud in an attractively uncensored way, and the result is a Hamlet whose emotional adventure is always believable and empathy-inspiring.
No one else in the cast is on West's level. Larry Lamb starts strongly as a smooth and attractive Claudius, but fails to explore the character's moral complexity, with his prayer scene particularly weak.
Kerry Condon captures Ophelia's fragility but adds little to the role, as does Marty Cruickshank, whose Gertrude is loyal wife and worried mother but nothing more.
Alan David plays Polonius as a wholly comic fool, an interpretation I thought had been discarded fifty years ago, with no sense of the man's political savvy or danger; he returns as a engagingly openhearted Welsh Gravedigger. Ben Meyjes is an attractively manly Laertes, but John Dougall leaves no impression as Horatio.
The updating doesn't all work. Using security TV cameras to spy on the nunnery scene is harmless, but giving Horatio a camcorder to project close-ups of the king and queen's reactions to the players is distracting and pointless, especially since they just sit stony-faced.
Hamlet pulls out a gun when considering suicide in the first soliloquy, and actually uses it to kill Polonius, but having him shoot Claudius after stabbing and poisoning him is literally overkill. And there are far too many pointless and intrusive lighting shifts.
(By the way, without giving anything away, director Pimlott has found a brand new way to arrange the switching of swords in the duel scene, one that adds interesting overtones to Claudius's character.)
In all, despite the lack of support from the secondary players, Samuel West's performance and the generally clutter-free production make this one of the best Hamlets of recent years, and one I would recommend particularly to first-timers.
Ben Whishaw, Old Vic Theatre Spring-Summer 2004
Contrary to the hype, 20-year-old Ben Whishaw does not give a brilliant performance as Hamlet. Nor do the rest of the cast. In fact, it's not a brilliant production overall and it is debatable whether director Trevor Nunn achieves whatever his vision was in the first place.
Yet this is easily one of the best Shakespeares to have hit the stage in a decade, maybe more -- although it will not be to everyone's taste.
Of all the great classic roles, it used to be that the best Hamlets were always young unknowns in fleeting student or fringe productions. It's no great secret why -- a young actor brings no baggage and none is thrust upon him.
And so, here at the Old Vic, West End theatregoers get to see such a performance with all the benefits of the West End spotlight, one that somehow also provides a magical insight into how the rest of Shakespeare works.
Key to this production's success is the youth factor (without cringingly appealing to the younger generations). Hamlet is young enough here to have a mother and stepfather who are also in their youth, just as they were intended to be.
Suddenly the relationships within this pressure cooker of a castle make sense, and though there's a myriad of styles of delivery, there is only one logical way to deliver it, with the cadences and energy of real emotions, which is precisely what we get.
There are moments to savour. Whishaw plays Hamlet as an uber-nerd whose sense of mischief more than matches any hormonally inbuilt moodiness.
He is equalled for sheer energy by Nicholas Jones, who hams it up as a wonderfully dotty Polonius and perhaps, as a sort of Fool, provides unexpected insight on one and all. The graveyard scene is a classic as Sidney Livingstone throws in a spotlight-stealing performance as a supremely droll Gravedigger.
Movement is as essential as the dialogue, continuous with everyone in chracter, reaction shots, and fleshing out each character. Imogen Stubbs, for example is all expressive body language as Gertrude -- until she opens her mouth, that is. Tom Mannion is similarly as expressive as Claudius.
The disappointment is Samantha Whittaker, whose Ophelia undoubtedly brings energy to the proceedings but appears more a precocious teenager who cannot act rather than an actor in the role of a precocious teenager.
The combined result of the actors' efforts rediscovers Hamlet for a great play, in which everyone has a motive, not just the Prince or his parents.
In so doing, it ceases to be a vehicle for Hamlet. Peppered throughout is deliciously dark -- and appropriate -- humour that has the audience regularly breaking out into laughter.
Suddenly this is not the monolinear tragedy we have become accustomed to, but something far more vital that shakes off the all-hallowed, stifling Gormenghastian atmosphere evoked by traditionally hoary casts to rediscover that otherworldiness reprised in today's Donnie Darko or anything by the Coen brothers.
The suspense is genuine, the lines nicely self-referential, there are real issues of family, humanity and our place on this mortal coil.
Of course there are glaring holes in the plot, underdeveloped characters, a muddled historical back story yet, so long as the actors keep out of the way of the play -- as Nunn so sensationally contrives -- they confirm it to be the great work that it has always been.
This is not great Shakespeare -- just how it should be done.
Toby Stephens, Albery Theatre Winter 2004
Michael Boyd's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is crisp and clear enough for beginners, while still having a sufficient number of fresh touches to satisfy the more jaded Hamlet veteran.
At its centre is Toby Stephens' attractive and very sympathetic Prince, surely the most unhappy Hamlet I have ever seen.
That may sound silly - of course Hamlet is unhappy. But I have never seen an actor convey so powerfully that, whatever else may be going on from scene to scene, the ever-present core of this young man's experience is deep, deep unhappiness.
Laurence Olivier famously oversimplified his 1948 film by declaring it the story of a man who could not make up his mind. Turning Hamlet into the story of a man in pain may be as reductive, but it works theatrically.
Whatever intellectual or philosophical overtones may be lost (and Boyd's eclectic text, about which I'll have more to say later, simply cuts a lot of them), our experience of witnessing an attractive young man so very unhappy is as moving as any tragedy could want to be.
(Similarly, an actor who played King Lear as simply an old man in pain would be missing a lot of what's in the character and play, but it would work.)
The performances surrounding Stephens' are, almost inevitably, a mix of successes and failures, sometimes a bit of both.
Clive Wood is an appropriately menacing Claudius, even at his most charming, and if Sian Thomas's Gertrude is a little too one-note imperious, making her breakdown in the Closet Scene not work, still it allows her a more dignified death than most Gertrudes get.
Meg Fraser's Ophelia seems at first a nonentity, but you gradually get the sense of a buttoned-down, almost Victorian Proper Young Lady without the emotional tools to cope with the events of the play, and it is a nice insight that her madness would take the form of coarseness - not obscenity, but a kind of fishwife vulgarity that hints at what had been repressed.
All actors playing Polonius must decide whether he's a dangerous political animal or a fool, but Richard Cordery seems unhappily to have chosen both, in alternate scenes. Forbes Masson's Horatio and Gideon Turner's Laertes leave no impression.
That could not be said of Greg Hicks, who uses all his mime training to make the Ghost a truly eerie spectre, powerfully conveying the weight and pain of Purgatory in every slow-motion gesture. And Hicks carries over hints of the Ghost into his roles as Player and Gravedigger, generating flashes of frightened half-recognition in Hamlet.
A programme note acknowledges that the production cuts and pastes freely from among all the early versions of the play, generally eliminating the more philosophical passages to keep Hamlet's adventure purely on the emotional level.
Those familiar with the play might notice that, as is becoming increasingly common in contemporary productions, 'To be or not to be' is moved to an earlier spot, and Boyd slips in from a generally discredited text a scene between Horatio and Gertrude that I'll bet the most experienced Hamletophile has not seen before.
There is, of course, no such thing as a definitive Hamlet. If you demand a play that stirs the intellect and questions the nature of the universe, this production may not satisfy.
But as the very human story of a young man trying to function under the burden of unbearable unhappiness, this is one of many possible Hamlets, and one that is at its best moving and powerful.
Ed Stoppard, New Ambassador's Theatre Spring 2006
This production of the English Touring Theatre is the crispest, clearest Hamlet I have ever seen. I would recommend it without reservation to anyone coming to the play for the first time.
Whether it has much to offer Hamlet veterans is another question.
Director Stephen Unwin and his mainly young cast (At times the many babyfaces on stage give it the feel of a school production) have achieved something truly remarkable, absolute clarity.
There isn't a single sentence or bit of convoluted syntax that doesn't sound natural and totally understandable, and you will never be lost for even a moment.
I wonder, however, if accomplishing that really required the sacrifice of everything else about the play - characterisations, psychology, philosophy, poetry and, to a great extent, drama. And those who expect at least a little of each of these things from a Hamlet are likely to be disappointed.
All the characters have been reduced to one dimension or less. Alice Patten's Ophelia is demure to the point of near-invisibility in the first half of the play, and demure even in her mad scenes.
Michael Cronin's Polonius is neither comic nor a dangerous political enemy (to cite just two of the ways he is sometimes played), but just a plot functionary.
Most noticeable among the generally small cuts in the text are all references to Claudius's drinking and lechery, which - since he also doesn't play him as particularly evil - leaves David Robb very little to do with the character but just stand there and speak his lines - his sudden anguish in the Prayer Scene comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere.
(For my fellow pedants, other noticeable cuts include the moving around the stage to escape the Ghost's orders to swear, some bits of the Nunnery Scene, and Hamlet's conversation with the Player about the speech to be put into the play-within-the-play.)
Anita Dobson does find a single note to play as Gertrude, that of concerned and loving mother, and it does give her character some warmth. Though she never for a moment suggests a queen, her description of Ophelia's death is the sweetest and most moving I've ever heard.
And at the centre is Ed Stoppard (son of...), whose Hamlet is young, a bit fidgety, but generally a blank.
Stoppard is very much of the school of Gielgud, reciting musically rather than finding much thought or feeling behind his words.
At times he almost sings his lines in a thin tenor, and at other moments he seems to be channelling the quietly lilting but empty voice John Hurt uses in his television ad voice-overs.
Stoppard doesn't really have much stage presence - in almost every scene whoever he's playing against upstages him and draws your attention. On one level that's not a bad thing, keeping the play from being just a star vehicle.
But it also comes perilously close at moments to being a Hamlet without a Hamlet, which probably is a bad thing.
The school group sitting near me was held from start to finish, with nary a fidget, and that is remarkable. I would encourage any teacher or parent to bring teenagers to this production, and recommend it to any Hamlet neophyte.
I would also warn anyone who has seen the play before that there will be very little here to hold their interest.
Edward Bennett, Novello Theatre Winter 2008-2009
This is going to be a frustrating doughnut of a review, with a gaping hole at its centre. I can tell you everything about the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production except the one thing you want to know.
A back injury forced star David Tennant to withdraw during previews and to be unable to perform on opening night, so his understudy Edward Bennett had to go on for him. I'll tell you all about Bennett's performance, but with any luck Tennant will be back by the time you get to see the all-but-sold-out show. Note: In fact David Tennant was only able to return for the last few performances of the limited run
(A pause, though, for an important side note. In addition to understudying the lead, Edward Bennett normally plays Laertes, which meant that his understudy, who normally plays Guildenstern, had to move up, and someone else had to play Guildenstern, and someone else had to take his role, and.... And it is a testament to the very strong team the RSC is fielding that the seams did not show and there wasn't a visible moment of hesitation or nervousness.)
The production itself is admirable. Though it runs three and a half hours, director Gregory Doran keeps it moving quickly and clearly, with remarkably few of the anachronistic jolts that almost always come with modern dress versions - it hardly bothers you that Laertes packs condoms as he leaves for France or that Hamlet shoots Polonius rather than stabbing him.
For my fellow pedants, despite its length there are several textual cuts, most noticeably some snips to 'To be' and the Nunnery Scene, Hamlet's account of what happened on board the ship (with the fates of R&G), and the final sequence involving Fortinbras; and, following current fashion, 'To be' and the Nunnery Scene have been moved up before the entrance of the Players.
As Claudius, Patrick Stewart may be giving the same performance he did in the BBC version twenty-five years ago, but it works, a calm and confident king who can stare Hamlet down after the Mousetrap and even die with courage and dignity (though this characterisation makes his panic in the Prayer Scene unbelievable). Doubling as the Ghost he intelligently and impressively defines him by anger rather than grief.
Oliver Ford Davies opts for the simplest possible reading of Polonius, as merely an absent-minded old fool (I prefer a hint of the dangerous politician), but he does it very well, also showing us the man's unconscious assumption that the universe revolves around him.
Mariah Gale makes no impression at all as Ophelia, and Penny Downie's biggest contribution to Gertrude is to make her innocence unequivocal.
And how about Edward Bennett? Of course any understudy is handicapped by the need to fit into an existing framework - he can't bring too much that's individual to the role without throwing all the other actors off stride. And a colleague who saw David Tennant in Stratford confirms that Bennett generally works within the broad outlines of Tennant's performance.
Bennett gives an intelligent, assured performance lacking only the spark of star power.
He's strongest in the first half of the play, where he is even able to suggest a characterisation in the buttoned-down, physically and socially awkward misfit who is oddly liberated by his task, as if he senses the ending and knows he has nothing to lose, a freedom symbolised by his switch to jeans and T-shirt.
But you also sense that Bennett didn't know what to do with 'To be or not to be' and so just rushes through it as a recitation, and he doesn't have a handle on the Nunnery Scene either.
In all, it is a solid, commendable performance by a non-star - and of course the role does want a star.
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Jude Law, Wyndham's Theatre Summer 2009
The best thing about this Hamlet is Jude Law, giving a passionate, intelligent and frequently original performance. The worst thing is a general lack of spark and excitement in what is a carefully thought-out but rarely inspired production.
Law, whose last London appearance was as a disappointingly bland Dr. Faustus in 2002, has grown significantly both in stage presence and in ability to make an overly familiar text come alive.
The big danger facing all actors in this role is lapsing into empty recitation of the set pieces, but Law's line readings are fresh and natural throughout, without being idiosyncratic, letting us witness a Hamlet feeling and thinking these things for the first time.
The actor's determination to act each line occasionally takes him to an excess of physical business, sawing the air too much with his hands, but it's a small price to pay for the life and reality he brings to the character.
Only 'To be' and the Nunnery Scene defeat him, as they do almost every actor, the lines we all know by heart proving impossible for the performer to make new.
And, as a bit of a pedant, I am particularly pleased to hear Law fully understanding and clearly communicating some of the play's deepest philosophical and metaphysical thoughts, as in the 'divinity that shapes our ends' and 'fall of a sparrow' speeches.
Law's accomplishment is particularly impressive when almost everyone around him does lapse into mere recitation much of the time - an indication that director Michael Grandage either devoted most of his attention to his star or just wasn't particularly interested in making the secondary figures as alive and real-sounding.
(Grandage's direction also falters in leaving non-speaking actors stranded onstage as their characters seem uncomfortable at watching or listening to what's going on.)
Kevin R. McNally has the legitimate excuse that his Claudius is conceived as very much a public man, most of his speeches the consciously artificial pronouncements of one creating and sustaining a political persona. This pattern makes the few glimpses past the character's mask, as in the Prayer Scene, all the more powerful.
The always-reliable Ron Cook strips away the annoying layers of dim-old-codger comedy that have built up around Polonius, leaving a crisp and competent civil servant who is a formidable obstacle to the hero, though Cook, like the others, tends to slip into empty recitation, as in the rattled-off and unfelt advice to Laertes.
Some may find Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Ophelia disappointing, but her underplaying establishes the girl's fragility from the start, and her quiet and unhistrionic Mad Scenes are especially moving and chilling in the vision of someone collapsing into herself.
Gertrude may be one of the most thankless roles in all of Shakespeare, and Penelope Wilton joins a long list of admirable actresses unable to do much with her. Only in the Closet Scene, where Wilton shows us the real pain of a mother fearing for her son's sanity, does the character come alive.
Elsewhere, only Alex Waldmann's attractively boyish Laertes and David Burke's droll gravedigger really register.
It may be damning with faint praise to say that Jude Law delivers more than we might have expected from him in this Hamlet. But his is, in fact, a fine and thoroughly admirable performance, and by far the best thing in a solidly-good-but-not-great production.
Rory Kinnear, Olivier Theatre Autumn-Winter 2010 - 2011
I should begin by confessing that assertively modern dress Shakespeare tends to leave me cold, and when Nicholas Hytner's new National Theatre Hamlet began with the noise of a jet fighter overhead and the sight of guards with AK-47s, my heart sank a bit. Aside from the inevitable anachronisms and style clashes, so much of this has become Shakespearean cliché.
Still, if you're going to stress the political nature of Elsinore's court, then some modern insertions can work.
Both Claudius and Fortinbras are very aware of their public images, and having them each play key scenes to TV cameras conveys that insight efficiently, while constantly hovering security men and a hidden microphone for the Nunnery Scene are reasonable extensions of Polonius' habitual spying.
It even helps establish Hamlet's overaged-student nature to see him return from England with hoodie and backpack.
On the other hand, introducing Ophelia as a hip, boombox-toting modern girl makes it very difficult for actress Ruth Negga to convince with her panic at Hamlet's appearance in her closet, her frailty in the Nunnery Scene or her flip into madness.
And having Hamlet make the others wear T-shirts with a private symbol of rebellion only he and we understand is just silly, as is his very broad swishing about when acting mad, and both ought to be dropped.
In the midst of this is Rory Kinnear's prince, conceived of as a Nice Guy stuck in an untenable situation. Kinnear speaks the lines clearly and intelligently, but he never tries to make Hamlet special in any way.
There's more than a touch of the adolescent about this Hamlet, in his self-consciousness, self-pity and occasionally self-indulgent passions.
He's bright and warm and attractive, but his heroism consists less in any unique quality than in his determined attempt to do his best at something he's not particularly equipped to do. We like him and feel sorry for him more than admire him, and that works.
Kinnear and director Hytner draw us closer to Hamlet by following the same pattern with all the soliloquies (Claudius does the same in the Prayer Scene) - each begins with introspection, breaking the fourth wall at some point to engage us and implicitly ask our approval of his thinking.
(I might note that almost all of Hytner's innovations, from the commando guards through the boombox and the hidden mic, are borrowed from one previous production or another. On the other hand, Kinnear may well be the first Hamlet ever to speak 'To be or not to be' while smoking a cigarette and - Spoiler Alert! - Ophelia's death is neither accident nor suicide, and Gertrude's report is a hastily-contrived cover-up.)
Malahide's cold, reptilian Claudius is never anything but
self-controlled, even in the Prayer Scene, though Clare Higgins
makes clear in her first appearance that Gertrude can only sustain
the rigid smile of a political wife with the frequent help of a
drink, and her arc is less a matter of being shaken by Ophelia's
madness or the Closet Scene than of being on her way down from the
David Calder intelligently avoids the trap of playing Polonius only as a fool, and establishes him as a seasoned politician and significant danger to Hamlet; he later doubles as an unobtrusive Gravedigger. James Laurenson doubles the very human and fatherly Ghost with the more formal Player King.
For my fellow pedants, the three hour forty minute running time involves a lot of tiny trims to the text, with only three noticeable larger cuts - the discussion of child actors (which everybody cuts these days), the scene between the two gravediggers, and some of Hamlet's speculations about skulls.
Michael Sheen, Young Vic Theatre Winter 2011-2012
Hamlet is a pretty good play. It really doesn't need the help of directors or designers to improve it.
I have no quarrel with – indeed, great admiration for – directors who use their talents and insights to illuminate and enrich the text. I have less patience with 'concepts' imposed on the text that add little, subtract a lot and generally seem to exist just to show how clever the directors and/or designers believe they are.
The best things about the Young Vic's new Hamlet are the play itself and the nicely nuanced performance of Michael Sheen as the Prince. The worst things are the concept pasted onto the play by director Ian Rickson and designer Jeremy Herbert, and some of the things that overlay leads them to do to what Shakespeare wrote.
Inspired perhaps by the Marat/Sade, Rickson and Herbert have set the play in an insane asylum. The audience is led around to the back of the building and then through winding backstage spaces disguised as hospital corridors before entering the theatre.
The first court scene is played as group therapy, with Claudius as doctor and everyone else as patients, though Polonius will later switch between patient and staff, and Gertrude's role in this construct will never be clear.
Security doors open and close with the flashing of alarms, visitors are frisked on their way in, and Hamlet listens in on Claudius' Prayer Scene through an office intercom. Later he is sent off to England sedated and strapped to a wheelchair (though he wakes up long enough to watch Fortinbras' army on television and speak his soliloquy before passing out again).
The best that can be said for this is that perhaps Ian Rickson had The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in mind, and wanted to suggest that the entire play was the warped perceptions of Patient H, but the simplest response to that is to say that this play is not Caligari and the concept just doesn't work.
Meanwhile, other directorial decisions range from the harmless – Rosencrantz is played by an actress, though everyone calls her 'sir' and 'him' – to the more problematical – Horatio is also an actress, but she comes across less as a fellow student than as an old girlfriend, muddying the emotional waters – to open violations of the text – Claudius tells the English king to kill Hamlet by telephone, making nonsense of the letter switch later - and the downright weird – as always, there's a lot of doubling of roles, but Rickman has Polonius and Ophelia literally climb out of their graves to become the Priest and Osric respectively.
And the very last seconds of the play bring in a surprise effect that says absolutely nothing except 'Oh how clever we are.'
And yes, some of the director's inventions actually work – the Ghost inhabits Hamlet's body and speaks through him, Polonius makes Ophelia read Hamlet's love letter in front of the King and Queen, to her deep embarrassment, and later she speaks 'Oh what a noble mind' directly to Hamlet rather than after he's left.
Michael Sheen's Prince may play a bit too old for the role – he actually looks older than Claudius or Gertrude –and he may saw the air too much with his hands. But he captures the reality of the character, speaking every speech as if for the first time, repeatedly caught short by his own emotions and even startled by the words he hears himself saying.
'Too solid flesh' is a wail of pain, while 'To be' is quiet and controlled, the born student thinking his way through a metaphysical problem, and 'Oh what a rogue' is a convincing dramatic journey from one thought and emotion to another.
Whether he's supposed to be Hamlet or Patient H, we always believe in the man and in his pain, and care about him.
If James Clyde ever denies that his Claudius is modelled on David Frost, don't believe him. He has all the mannerisms, all the oily smoothness and all the veneer of fake sincerity with nothing beneath – and it works, at least until Shakespeare inconveniently gives Claudius a couple of sincere moments, which we can't believe.
Sally Dexter doesn't seem to have found Gertrude at all, and is too often little more than an extra hovering around the edges of scenes; she doesn't show the Queen much affected by the Closet Scene.
Michael Gould's Polonius is just the stock comic figure (I prefer a Polonius who offers some threat to Hamlet), but Gould is the first to ever convince me that the man really loves his children.
Vinette Robinson is as invisible as most Ophelias are until the mad scenes, and there disappoints for an unexpected reason – she seems to have studied and copied the symptoms of dementia closely, but the effect is more like a cold case study than a moment inspiring horror or pity.
For my fellow pedants, the three and a half hour running time includes a lot of small updatings of obscure language and more textual trims than wholesale cuts, the most noticeable absences being the departure and return of the ambassadors to Norway, the advice to the players, and the spoken parts of the Mousetrap; and in keeping with modern practice, 'To be' and the Nunnery Scene are moved up to the First Quarto position.
Keep your eyes on Michael Sheen and ignore everything –absolutely everything – going on around him, and the play will work despite (not because of) the concept imposed on it.
Whatever else is going on around it, a production of Hamlet rises or falls on its central performance. And actor Andrew Scott gives us an attractive, quietly magnetic and wholly of-a-piece Prince who holds our attention and sympathy.
There are a lot of other things going on in Robert Icke's production, some more successful than others. But it is Andrew Scott who will grab and carry you for just under four hours.
Scott's Prince is a man so inward-turning that he seems to be half-soliloquising even when in conversation with others, constantly monitoring what he hears himself saying and aware of what that reveals about him, even to himself. The converse is also true – Scott's soliloquies are conversations with the audience, using us as sounding boards for his thoughts.
And more clearly than most predecessors Scott shows us a Hamlet cursed by his remarkable intelligence and his sense of irony. Whatever else is going on at any moment, a part of this Hamlet can't help seeing it as a cosmic joke, a double vision that repeatedly gets in the way of his determination to act.
(The fascination of Scott's Moriority in TV's Sherlock came largely from his macabre sense of humour. Imagine a hint of that same quality, but this time as the character's handicap.)
The result is an extraordinarily intimate connection between character and audience.
Scott is surrounded by other strong performances, most notably Angus Wright's all-business Claudius, Juliet Stevenson's warm but steely Gertrude and Peter Wight's essence-of-middle-management Polonius.
Director Icke and designer Hildegard Bechtler set the play in a technological present, with a bank of TV screens providing everything from the guards' monitoring of the battlements in the first scene to news reports of Fortinbras's army.
The device is most effective in the Mousetrap scene, here played as a public event, with onstage cameramen providing close-ups of the King and Queen's reaction to what they're watching.
And I don't want to give away anything, but Icke's staging of both Claudius's prayer scene and the climactic duel is both audacious and very effective.
Other updatings, like having Polonius comically talk into a spy microphone in his lapel, the ambassador reporting via Skype, or underscoring some scenes with Bob Dylan songs, come across just as gimmicks.
(For my fellow pedants, the text is marked by a lot of substitutions for archaic words and by judicious trims rather than wholesale cuts, the most obvious losses being the burrowing ghost, chunks of Polonius's advice, the assistant gravedigger and Osric's foppishness. On the other hand, a short Gertrude-Horatio conversation from the generally discredited First Quarto edition is inserted, as I've never seen it before, and it insightfully colours what happens afterwards.)
Andrew Scott and Robert Icke do not offer a performance of flashy set pieces that will stick in your mind while the rest fades, but one you will remember in its entirety for the way its entirety all fits together.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's new touring Hamlet is an ideal introduction to the play for those who have never seen it.
It is clean, it is clear, and it has enough novel elements to attract and hold the attention of audiences who would not ordinarily choose a Shakespeare play.
It has less to offer Hamlet veterans, however. Despite the surface novelties, there is little in the way of staging or performances to illuminate the play or suggest fresh interpretation or insight.
Director Simon Godwin and designer Paul Wills have set the play in a modern African kingdom, with an almost entirely Afro-Caribbean cast.
Costumes are European with just the touch of the exotic (colourful headwear for the women, military finery for the men), the younger characters prefer casual Americanised clothes, and ceremonial drumming punctuates the more formal scenes. (Casting actresses to play Guildenstern, Osric and a few minor characters as women has little effect.)
Throughout the play the emphasis in speaking is on clarity. Bits of exposition and backstory are explained very slowly, and even the soliloquies are structured and paced to allow us to follow Hamlet's thought processes without losing the thread.
What the director has clearly chosen to sacrifice to this end is any depth of emotion or complexity of characterisation, and any exploration of the play's metaphysical and philosophical subtexts.
Paapa Essiedu's Hamlet is an attractive and manly youth without very much in the way of intellect or passion. 'To be or not' goes by almost unnoticed as a bit of incidental thought, and even the more passionate soliloquies are emotions of the moment – only briefly in 'rogue and peasant slave' do we get a sense of real anguish.
The other characters are even less developed. Clarence Smith's Claudius is so controlled and formal that his more open villainy late in the play comes as a bit of surprise, while Lorna Brown is given little more to do as Gertrude than wear a succession of elegant gowns elegantly.
Given the choice between a dangerously political Polonius and a dottering fool, Joseph Mydell does neither, and the strongest impression you are likely to get of Mimi Ndiweni is that she sings much better than most Ophelias, bringing a not-inappropriate blues tone to the mad scenes.
To the credit of director and actors, the over-three-hours running time moves by swiftly, the text being trimmed here and there for clarity rather than being heavily cut (Noticeable omissions include Polonius's instructions to Reynaldo on how to spy on his son, the dumb show, and some of Hamlet's reaction to Yorick.)
Much of the rest is a matter of incidental bits rather than coherent interpretation. The first act is extended to the middle of the prayer scene with Hamlet poised to kill Claudius, leaving him the interval in which to decide whether to do it pat (Spoiler alert: he doesn't).
The director has Hamlet take up painting in his spare time, creating large canvasses of monsters and displaying his supposed madness by wandering around the formal court in paint-spattered clothes.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more obsequiously toadying than usual, and Horatio more invisible than usual. In one thought-provoking touch Gertrude reports on Ophelia's death in a wet dress, suggesting that she attempted to save the drowning girl, and the climactic duel is not with swords but with wooden sticks.
The RSC is to be commended for making the play so accessible and for touring it to fresh venues like the Hackney Empire, and every new convert it brings to the play is a full justification. But if you've ever seen the play before there is little real reason to see this version.Gerald Berkowitz
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