After several years’ absence, the RSC has finally returned to London with a permanent base. And what a comeback it is; Michael Boyd’s rich and thought-provoking Hamlet questions some of our assumptions about this play.

The scene is set by Greg Hicks’ ghost, dragging his sword behind him like a Danish Jacob Marley. The white-clad and white-faced apparition jolts a stunned Hamlet into action and it quickly becomes clear that while Hamlet might be feigning complete madness, he’s treading a fine line between sham and reality – there’s a real edge to his rage. Toby Stephens is a robust Hamlet: no fey philosophising for him. This is a dangerous character to have around – witness the eagerness with which Claudius dispossesses him of his dagger.

This is an excellent Claudius from Clive Wood: a usurper clearly aware of his strength, but one constantly alert to the threats posed by his rebellious nephew. Meg Fraser makes an excellent Ophelia, transfigured by rage as well as grief, and the excellent Hicks is a compelling presence.

The Ghost is often doubled with Claudius, in Boyd’s production he becomes the player king – dragging his stage sword behind me in a dramatic echo of his appearance on the battlements – and with the Queen made up to resemble Gertrude, it is clear that this is no representation of a murder but a ghastly re-enactment, taking Hamlet’s assertion that actors are the “brief chroniclers of time” all too literally.

Perhaps the production plays on the Elizabethan parallels too strongly (Sian Thomas’s Gertrude is the spit of the Virgin Queen) but I like the way that the worldy concerns of Claudius and his court and matched by Hamlet’s obsession with the unworldly. And Richard Cordery’s falsely jovial Polonious is a clearly a man at home with double dealing.

At three hours and 40 minutes, this is near to a complete a Hamlet as we’re likely to see. Boyd ensures that every minute is riveting.

- Maxwell Cooter


NOTE: The following 5 star review dates from July 2004 and this production’s original run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

"Toby, or not Toby?" that was the question. And the answer has to be a resounding, "yes". Triumphant here ten years ago as a critically-lauded Coriolanus, Toby Stephens has done it again with a deeply thrilling Hamlet.

This is no adolescent ineffectual, "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" but a dashing, vigorous Dane, prevented from sweeping to his revenge by the ever-present threat of violence. Conversations are spied on; soldiers appear, suddenly, at the slightest threat to Claudius' venal and deeply cynical regime.

Polonious (Richard Cordery) is less the fool than is customary but, in an early scene with Ophelia in which he warns her from receiving Hamlet's attentions, a veteran politician only too aware of the pitfalls and dangers she cannot see.

This is a court too shrouded in blackness (and beautifully lit by Vince Herbert), more like a gladiatorial arena, circular and steep-sided with a series of doors and openings, in which people are always conducting furtive conversations.

An early indication that something out of the ordinary is unfolding comes with a revelatory and genuinely chilling ghost scene. Greg Hicks, bent and bare-chested, white from the waist-up except for the holes that are his eyes and mouth, glides in trailing a rusty broadsword, a vision of a soul in purgatory.

It's a wonder Hamlet doesn't go mad, you feel, confronted with the murder of his tormented father and the corruption of his mother; sworn to a revenge almost impossible to execute, yet charged with keeping his soul free of taint.

This is a fantastic production by Michael Boyd who finds new insights again and again - the flowers that Ophelia hands out in her mad scene are Hamlet's old love-letters - and who elicits terrific performances from a very fine cast.

Chief among them are a suavely villainous and brutal Claudius (Clive Wood), a wonderful Old Hamlet from Greg Hicks who also doubles and trebles as a fine gravedigger and the Player King and Richard Cordery as a wise/foolish Polonius. I also warmed to Forbes Masson's gentle, affectingly loyal Horatio.

But the evening belongs to Toby Stephens. Of course no Hamlet can sound all the stops and perhaps there isn't quite the sense of spiritual journey and rapprochement with death later on. But you'd have to be muddy-mettled indeed not to be thrilled and moved by this Great Dane and great production.

- Pete Wood