The English Touring Theatre production of Hamlet has been on an extensive tour of the UK throughout autumn and winter before coming to London. There were paparazzi out in force for the press night but it certainly didn’t feel like a celebratory occasion.
Stephen Unwin’s production is a swirl of black, brown and grey, courtesy of Michael Vale’s rather austere set. The effect is rather like seeing a Rembrandt painting brought to life, an effect enhanced by Mark Bouman’s costumes and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting.
But it makes for a rather gloomy Elsinore. The spirit is set in the second scene; the celebration of Claudius’s and Gertrude’s marriage. This is a downbeat affair. Hamlet’s explanation of thrift has never seemed more accurate – this is a most joyless palace. Indeed, Anita Dobson’s Gertrude spends most of the play with a single expression on her face – a moue somewhere between disgust and despair, as if something was really rotten and she’d just managed to smell it.
Amid such crepuscular and mirthless surroundings, it seems hard to single out Hamlet for his melancholy. In fact, Ed Stoppard’s prince is rather more animated than most Hamlets – compared to the rest of the palace, he looks positively chirpy.
With his sculpted cheekbones and designer stubble, he’s certainly a glamorous prince; but he doesn’t convince as a young man caught in an intellectual torment as he tries to come to terms with his thirst for revenge. Nor does he strike me as someone haunted by the death of his father, the rage seems strangely lacking. Nor, meanwhile, does David Robb’s Claudius seem like someone who coveted either the crown or Gertrude; he seems permanently irritated instead.
Only Michael Cronin’s Polonius lightens the mood. It’s easy to play the character as a pompous interfering fool but Cronin underplays him nicely, letting the words suggest the true nature of Polonius’s character. Alice Patten’s Ophelia suggests a real vulnerability too; one gets a sense of how a young girl’s emerging sexuality is being damaged before our eyes.
The other noticeable aspect of the production is the speed. It’s nearly a full version, yet it’s only a little over three hours long: a by-product of too many actors rattling through their speeches. Perhaps the stygian gloom was getting to them too.
There have been some rather good productions of the play recently, and this doesn’t say anything particularly radical – apart from the fact Denmark is not leading the field in interior design, that is.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from September 2005 and this production's earlier tour.
Stephen Unwin, artistic director of English Touring Theatre, has a keen sense of dramatic irony. The last time I was sat in the Oxford Playhouse, I was watching his production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, now he is touring his production of Hamlet, with Tom Stoppard’s son, Ed, in the title role.
This is a slick and stylish production. Michael Vale’s design is simple but effective, with back-lit casement windows and huge doorways giving an operatic grandeur to the Danish court. The dress is Elizabethan, and the direction pays careful attention to the etiquette of the age. Scenes move swiftly one into the other, which keeps this long play from ever feeling lengthy. And Olly Fox’s original music drives the play forward and creates a world where all is not well.
Ed Stoppard is an energetic and playful Hamlet, which at times belies the depression that is continuously referred to in the play. “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth,” he says, after having greeted his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with great hearty hugs and back-slapping. It just doesn’t ring true. It is obvious that this Hamlet is performing his madness, but without the underlying torment and anguish – caused by his need to revenge his father’s murder by his uncle who has now married his mother – this problematic play fails to make any sense. We just don’t understand why he treats Ophelia, subtley played by Alice Patten, with such anger and ill-feeling; or that he is really contemplating suicide in his ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. Nevertheless, his verse-speaking is impeccable and he presents a charismatic figure who aptly fits Ophelia’s description of him as the “very glass of fashion and mould of form”.
Anita Dobson plays an insipid Gertrude who just wants an easy life but becomes increasingly disturbed by her son’s frenzied behaviour, while David Robb presents a bad-tempered self-seeking Claudius. Ben Warwick is particularly notable in his passionate performance of a gentle, lisping Laertes, wronged brother to Ophelia.
For all it’s energy, this production misses some of the humour - Michael Cronin as the bumbling Polonius, father to Ophelia and Laertes, doesn’t get as many laughs as he ought – although he later plays the gravedigger with great comic timing. The night I saw it, the audience was packed with school children, who all seemed to follow the play attentively and the virtue of this production is its clarity of presentation.
- Antonia Windsor (reviewed at Oxford Playhouse)