Against Tom Scutt’s elegant and flexible set, with splendidly atmospheric and tightly focussed lighting from Oliver Fenwick, the opening scene on the battlements never produces the necessary frisson. Moving down to the court, the expected relationship of John Nettles as Claudius and Barbara Flynn as Gertrude fails to materialise. Nettles’ tendency to play the sub-text doesn’t help: Claudius is devious, so deliver the lines to illustrate that he is not speaking truth, with the result that any sense of Claudius as a smooth operator is lost. Nor do the unimaginative modern costumes achieve much.
Mostly, though, Miller’s policy of placing actors at a distance from each other, stationary, with no physical contact, destroys most relationships. When he is forced into action (most particularly in the well-directed final duel), the production is at its best.
Essentially, of course, Hamlet is about the Prince and John Simm has his strengths. His is a clear reading – we are in no doubt that he is but mad in craft, “To be or not to be” becomes a logical exposition – but he lacks magnetism and, like all characters in this production, has no hinterland. This is not a Hamlet you can imagine at Wittenberg arguing with philosophers, frequenting the theatre and boozing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a bizarrely unconvincing duo in this production).
The strength of the production lies in the performances of a few seasoned Shakespeareans in supporting roles. Foremost among these is the splendid Hugh Ross, pitch-perfect as a traditional Polonius and unexaggeratedly funny as the First Gravedigger. Colin Tierney’s stalwart Horatio and Joseph Mydell’s sonorous Player King are also excellent.
Less successful are Michelle Dockery and Tim Delap, perfectly adequate but unmemorable as Ophelia and Laertes, and a number of very young actors doubling various small parts and doing little more than reciting the lines, so that, for instance, the potential for camp in Osric goes for little.
The cutting is sensible and assured (the only named character to be lost is Reynaldo – and he’s no loss), the performance is decently paced – in the first half, too evenly paced – and the cast is full of fine actors. Maybe later in the run these will come together in a genuinely involving Hamlet.
– Ron Simpson