Since the Globe opened, it has backed away from doing any of the great tragedies - and, it must be said, three and a half hours is a long time for groundling to remain on their feet. That being said, the audience at the press night of Hamlet seemed determined the treat the play as the lightest of comedies, and for some reason, there were frequent gusts of laughter at the most inappropriate places - including Gertrude's speech announcing the death of Ophelia.
The chief attraction for this production is Mark Rylance's second attempt at Hamlet. His first, for the National Theatre, was widely heralded as the one of the best of modern times. That was a performance I missed, but I can testify that his performance here is that of a lyrical, gentle Hamlet. A prince of modern times, he hugs his father's ghost desperately and at times comes close to tears. For much of the first few scenes, Rylance keeps his back to the audience so that he is literally confronting his usurping uncle and keeping himself detached from the audience, an effect that makes him seem even more isolated. The overall result is a genuinely moving performance and one which reminds us once again that Rylance can be a superb Shakespearean actor.
Unfortunately, he is let down by the rest of the cast. Tim Preece's ghost is more ham than Hamlet, Tim Woodward's Claudius is too much a pantomime villain, Joanna McCallum'sGertrude is uninspired, James Hayes's Polonius has his moments, but never really suggests someone who rules the roost at court. And Mark Lockyer's Laertes starts off completely over the top and becomes downright hysterical at the end. Only Geoffrey Beever's Horatio (although much, much too old to be a fellow student) manages to be sympathetic foil for Rylance's performance.
Giles Block's production certainly improves as it progresses. It's strange seeing the ghost scene played in bright sunlight, and it isn't until Polonius's murder that the play really starts to grip. There are some excellent moments - Hamlet appears on stage following the murder scene with a bloodied bag, seemingly containing a severed head. And, in a nod towards Shakespearean verisimilitude, the play ends with a jig - a literal dance of death.
It's brave of the Globe to attempt one of the great tragedies, and if the production as a whole doesn't quite succeed, Rylance's performance is undoubtedly something to savour.