How do you say 'alas poor Yorick' without raising a snigger? Or declaim 'to be or not to be' without sounding impossibly hackneyed? Staging the best-known play in the English language is never easy. Almost everything has been done before - every period of history, every psychological interpretation, every nuance.
This RSC production, by Matthew Warchus, tries hard to find ways to be different. The setting is 20th century, although the attire varies from 1930s to the present day. There is a vaguely mafiosi, Cotton Club kind of feel to the Danish court. Hamlet (Alex Jennings) carries not a sword, but a revolver in a paper bag. Claudius (Paul Freeman) is a suave, sinister and powerful gangland Mr Big. Much of the action takes place in the shadow of a giant Christ in a minimalist, concrete-pillared chapel - just why is not clear, but nevertheless the effect works unexpectedly well.
The script has been cut ruthlessly. The opening scene with the ghost on the battlements has gone, as has all the political side to the play - there is no invading Fortinbras, no mention of the rottenness of the state of Denmark. During the first few scenes, my heart sank - it seemed as if Jennings was going to rant and posture his way through the whole thing with scant regard to the emotional or intellectual depth the role requires.
However, it soon emerges that, in the first few meetings with the Prince, we are just seeing an 'antic disposition'. As the action progresses, we get vivid glimpses of the dashing young blade he was before tragedy and melancholy overtook him - for example, in the excitement he shows at meeting his old actor chums. Hamlet the play is of course billed as a tragedy, but too often it feels more like an intellectual and philosophical exercise. This prince is very human, desperately lonely and miserable - the first Hamlet I have every felt truly sorry for.
Other high points include the impressive shadow performance of the 'play within the play', David Ryall´s Polonius - an hilarously ghastly old bore - and Derbhle Crotty´s Ophelia. Like Hamlet, this Ophelia took some getting used to - she is a rather pathetic and gawky little mouse. But this made the mad scene all the more disturbing - the girl who had previously wandered about in a dufflecoat suddenly emerged retching on barbiturates and made up like a cheap prostitute in a rayon slip. Again, there were inexplicable aspects in this scene - was it my imagination, or was there an insinuation that Claudius had molested the girl? But like so much of this production, there was method in the madness - it may not have made sense, but it worked.