The pedigree of those involved in this production is undoubtedly strong: David Farr has directed many well-received productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company over a number of years and Jonathan Slinger is one of the most lauded of the current generation of classical actors. They have a well-established working relationship, so why then is their Hamlet so far from being a complete success?
Aesthetically we are taken into a large hall, with a stage at one end. Are we in a community centre or perhaps a minor public school? It is not clear. It's a brilliantly executed piece of stage design (by Jon Bausor), but the relevance to the narrative is never fully revealed. My suspicion is that it emerged out of a desire to explain why swords are present in a contemporary setting. So a sporting environment with lots of fencing ephemera allows for this to be resolved - but quite what this municipal setting has to say about the rest of the text, I am at a loss to explain.
Irrespective of the setting, any Hamlet stands or falls on the interpretations of the characters. There are some positives here. Pippa Nixon continues to shine as one of the brightest performers of her generation. Her Ophelia is intelligent, awkward and very much aware of the dysfunction around her - thus rendering her mental collapse all the more touching.
Alex Waldmann also impresses as Horatio, bringing an endearing earnestness to the character. Waldmann, as he showed in King John, always a very watchable actor. Indeed I wondered how different this production might have been had he been in the title role. Certainly I hope his time will come in this regard. There is also a robust and handsome Laertes from Luke Norris and I did warm to Charlotte Cornwell's Gertrude after a somewhat uncertain start.
I have admired much of Jonathan Slinger's work with the RSC but I do feel that, on this occasion, the company quite simply gets it wrong. He is an actor of considerable talent and great presence - but, for me, Hamlet is not his role. I get the impression that he has been working on his interpretation for many years - developing ideas and new ways of approaching the (all too familiar) lines. And I'm certain that he has a clear vision for what he is trying to achieve but he (and Farr) were unable to communicate it to me.
He employs so many 'actorly' tricks, both verbally and physically, that it is hard to see through to the emotional truth of what the character is experiencing. I certainly get the manic side to his interpretation but never really feel his grief or deep depression. It is a cliché to say that less is more - but I think that stripping away some of the excesses of his performance would deliver a far more satisfying result.
At 3 hours 45 minutes, this is a long evening in the theatre; much of this stems from a fatal lack of pace, as it is far from a full text. Quite simply, too many lines are indulged. Indeed, Shakespeare's advice to the Players seems to have been completely ignored with all of the excesses Hamlet demands his actors must avoid being all too evident in the production as a whole.
I suspect, in the end, this is a production that will divide audiences and critics alike. There will be those like me who do not buy into the Farr/Slinger vision and those who are enthused and engaged by it. Certainly both reactions were evident at the end of this performance.