The last Hamlet to hit London was Simon Russell Beale's excellent performance for the National Theatre. In this RSC outing, Samuel West is equally excellent but there's the added dimension that Steven Pimlott's production is masterful on the political scope of the play. It's a long night, over four hours, but there's not a dull moment as the play grips right from the start.
Indeed, the opening scene is superbly handled. We quickly grasp the paranoia that haunts this Elsinore and it doesn't let up from there. Larry Lamb's Claudius is a smooth bureaucrat, bristling with latent menace - and not so latent when it comes to questioning Hamlet about Polonius's death. Lamb's performance is a fine one, lording it over his court of sharp-suited bureaucrats. It's all very New Labour. The unspoken threat of Fortinbras hangs over the court.
And West's Hamlet is in stark contrast to this. His is a true student prince, determined, if not going back to college, to bring his college ways to the court. If it's true that every generation gets the Hamlet that it deserves, then this Hamlet, clad in his casual clothes, speaks for the generation of slackers. Whether smoking spliffs with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or brandishing a video camcorder, he's a startlingly modern prince who wouldn't look out of place in Notting Hill. West, of course, is a fine verse speaker and has the voice to dominate a scene.
There are some strong supporting performances. Kerry Condon makes an excellent Ophelia, exuding an air of vulnerability. Alan David's Polonius also deserves a mention: he makes the character less of a fusspot and an old bore than is usual (David pops up later as a droll Welsh gravedigger). Full marks also for Peter Mumford's lighting which adds considerably to the atmosphere.
It's refreshing to see a production that manages to treat the text with respect and maintain such a modern feel. But most of all, this is a Hamlet that puts the prince's hesitation in a political context. After a few productions where the play is presented almost as a royal soap opera, Pimlott manages to marry the political paranoia with personal tragedy - a fine achievement.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following review dates from May 2001 and the production's original run in Straford-upon-Avon.
Hamlet is a huge play, and this sophisticated and intelligent production takes the time and space to explore it. The pace varies - often leisurely, sometimes fast but never hurried. Because of two perfectly positioned intervals, the four hours never seem long. The extended stage is vast and bare, enclosed by plain grey walls. The cast, in modern dress of 50 shades of grey, can be close and intimate, or acres of space apart. The action is sensationally lighted by Peter Mumford.
This production reveals Hamlet as, first and foremost, a play about acting. In life, most people spend much of their time acting out scenes; only at moments of intimate relaxation and high emotion do they become real. And it's the same in this play. Claudius (Larry Lamb), Hamlet's murderous uncle and new step-father, plays the ruler like a media-conscious president. The accent is English, but he looks like the older George Bush with the fawning, applauding court as his White House staff. Marty Cruickshank depicts Gertrude as a person acting out the part of a smooth first lady, a self-indulgent woman in love with the beauty of her own voice, until Hamlet wrings her heart and forces her to get real.
In a bold and imaginative move, director Steven Pimlott analyses different styles of acting with different characters. Christopher Good plays the ghost of Hamlet's father in a Donald Wolfit manner of overblown histrionics while Alan David's Polonius adopts a style which will appeal to more traditional playgoers, facing out to the audience and making sure every word is heard in the back row.
In contrast, the younger generation of actors, Ben Meyjes's Laertes, Kerry Condon's Ophelia (tenderly played as a dim, pathetic child) and, above all, Samuel West's Hamlet, provide painfully honest performances, crafted for a small intimate arena and transferred to the big theatre. There's a price to pay, but it's worth it. Those with impaired hearing will no doubt complain they can't hear some throw-away lines. But real life is like that, and this play is an exploration of "reality".
West (pictured) is the most convincing Hamlet since Mark Rylance's 1989 performance. Always honest, he compels others to confront their inner selves. He relaxes and shares a spliff with his student friends before forcing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to admit they are spies. He sends up Polonius and Claudius's falsehoods and forces his mother to abandon her act.
Be patient with this production. Pimlott's purpose is not immediately apparent, and there are times in the first third of the play when it seems disjointed and even a little slow. Thankfully, this is a director and a cast you can trust. But be warned, this fascinating exploration of what it means to be "real" on stage or in life could seriously affect the way you perceive the world. It's truly a Hamlet for the 21st century.
Hamlet opened at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2 May 2001 (previews from 31 March) and continues there in repertory until 13 October 2001.