We've seen many interpretations of Hamlet over the years: Hamlet the scholar, Hamlet the soldier, Hamlet the manic-depressive. It's therefore refreshing to see an actor bring yet another interpretation to this most difficult of roles. Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet is nothing short of a triumph for the actor. This is a Hamlet for a modern age - cynical, sardonic, bitter and full of black humour.
Blessed with a physique that is short and stout, Beale is perhaps not the most conventional-looking Hamlet (the "all too solid flesh" line is extremely believable), but he makes light of his stature and dominates the whole production from beginning to end. His really is a most human character, one who is starkly humorous but who treads between life and death so easily. Certainly, it's hard to recall a more melancholic "to be or not to be".
But while Russell Beale gives one of the definitive performances of our time, he does it within the confines of a production that doesn't quite convince. Director John Caird strips out the text that relates to Fortinbras and the Norwegian army (just as the RSC did a few years ago). By excising the political dimension to the play and presenting the action as pretty much a glorified royal Danish soap opera, the play loses a good deal of its impact. There's no sense of the creeping paranoia that infects Elsinore.
In Caird's production, Denis Quilley portrays Polonius as a saloon bar bore, and plays down the arch conspirator aspect of the role - rather unsatisfyingly. But there are some nice touches, including a new twist on the "Above all to your own self be true" scene, where Laertes and Ophelia mock his homilies with the world-weary air of children who have heard it all before.
Not all the characterisations work. Peter McEnery's Claudius is a pious hypocrite - you wonder how he can smile and smile and be a villain because there's precious little smiling here. With no semblance of charisma either, it's difficult to understand why Gertrude would choose to marry this Claudius. But then, Sara Kestelman's Gertrude doesn't really convince either. Catheryn Bradshaw's Ophelia is more successful and very understated - her mad scene, played in her day clothes, is touching in its simplicity.
Although, it's Russell Beale's Hamlet that's most deserving of praise, Tim Hatley's design and John Cameron's evocative music also play their part in creating a memorable evening. Flawed perhaps, but quite magnificent.