Hamlet at the The Young Vic

There s been a bit of a comeback for Shakespeare in London. After some particularly grim productions, the tide turned with the RNT s superb Troilus & Cressida and now this, Laurence Boswell s production of Hamlet.

In this enterprise, he is considerably helped by Paul Rhys s superb Hamlet. We ve become accustomed to seeing philosopher Hamlets, soldier Hamlets, even showmen Hamlets, but it s hard to recall a production where the prince is quite so melancholic and so distracted by the death of his father and the subsequent marriage of his mother. Rhys makes his first appearance in long black coat looking like a refugee from an Echo & the Bunnymen concert, but his pale face (and it should be said that he has just the right looks for this part) and reddened eyes accentuate the level of his grief. His jolts and twitches indicate just how far gone he is, and although he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that he is only mad north-by-northwest, he seems to be kidding himself.

However, by the second half, his character undergoes a miraculous change. Gone is the hesitancy and gone are the nervous gestures; instead we have a more mature, confident Hamlet, and for once we can genuinely believe in Fortinbras s words that this would have been an excellent king. He even develops a kind of black humour, playfully handling Yorick s skull and taking it with him as keepsake, going as far as putting it at the edge of his bath. Whereas the Hamlet of the first act would appear to have had a difficulty even in holding a rapier, this time he seems genuinely to relish the prospect of a duel with Laertes. This really is a well-judged portrayal.

Fortunately, Rhys s excellent performance is matched by the rest of the cast. Donald Sumpter s Claudius is streets away from the irascible bully we re accustomed to seeing. In an interesting bit of casting, he also plays the Ghost. A logical choice - they were brothers after all - although his clean-shaven appearance does give the lie to Hamlet s assertions that his beard was silver-sabled.

As Ophelia, Megan Dodds starts the play as a dumb blonde, not even vaguely comprehending Hamlet s actions, but her scenes after Polonius s death are wrenchingly good and one finds oneself thinking that her death was merciful release. And Polonius s Robin Soans is magnificently irritating: one imagines that there must have been a few sotto voce “thank yous” round the court when this fusspot s death was announced.

Full marks then to Boswell for this elegant production. At four hours, it s nearly the complete text but, despite the length, there s scarcely a dull moment. A highly recommended evening.

Maxwell Cooter