Director Yukio Ninagawa is back with the Bard at the Barbican for the first time since his King Lear, starring the late Nigel Hawthorne for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1999. That production, with its falling polystyrene rocks, was like car-crash theatre, best watched through closed fingers. This time round, Ninagawa displays more of a sense of style and a strong visual eye (despite working with a set that, thanks to its display of hanging light bulbs resembles a lighting show room), but he must have directed it with headphones clamped in his ears.

This is one of the worst-spoken Shakespeare productions that I’ve ever heard. No, make that the worst-spoken Shakespeare production. It’s not just that the verse is badly handled (although there’s plenty of that), but also that the actors seem incapable of projecting properly. As a result, the speech veers from one extreme to another: some lines so quiet they’re completely unintelligible (this from the middle of stalls, the audience in the gods would have been scrambling for ear trumpets, not opera glasses), and others bellowed out.

But these aren’t the only problems. Michael Maloney’s Hamlet leaves a lot to be desired. We don’t get any sense of grief; we don’t get any sense of indecision and we certainly don’t get any sense of mental turmoil. His delivery is more akin to DJ or a second-rate comedian, such is his desire to speak so quickly that whole speeches are delivered with scarcely a pause.

Peter Egan, as Claudius, seemed to sleepwalk through his part, as if wondering what he’s got himself into. Frances Tomelty is an uninspiring Gertrude, and Laura Rees singularly unaffecting as Ophelia.

Some actors emerge with credit. Robert Demeger endows Polonius with a strange, staccato-style of speaking, but he gets most of the laughs and manages to combine the comedy with a real, nasty underbelly. Brendan O'Hea and Nick Bagnall are a creepy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Bob Barrett’s Horatio rises above the debacle and actually shows that speaking verse clearly and distinctly is possible.

It isn’t a complete disaster. Ninagawa does introduce some nice touches. For example, one thing that’s always baffled me is why Claudius doesn’t react to Gonzago’s murder in the mime that precedes the players’ play. Ninagawa solves that by having Claudius distracted by Polonius. It’s a sign that here’s a director who can grasp small details, as well as having a stylish eye.

There were far too few bright points, though. Anyone without a thorough knowledge of the play will struggle to understand a lot of this – and that really isn’t good enough for a professional production.

- Maxwell Cooter (reviewed at the Barbican Theatre, London)

NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from October 2004 and this touring production’s initial dates at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.

The Theatre Royal Plymouth's three-play collaboration with Thelma Holt ends with the most absorbing and moving rendition of Hamlet this reviewer has seen.

Internationally celebrated Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, whose own creative team travelled with him from Tokyo, brings a new subtle dimension to Shakepeare's well-worn play in which love and loss, revenge and romance, politics and plots abound.

Tsukasa Nakagoshi's stark black box set, lit by swinging bulbs and occasional candles, is a fitting backdrop for the intensity of Michael Maloney's Hamlet. Furnished with only two chairs and an opening trap for the grave, there’s no escape here from the unfolding drama and the building atmosphere on stage.

Mahoney defies speculation by bringing great humanity to the tortured character and is so believable that nuances previously missed and motifs only studied become thought-provoking aspects of his paradoxical character. From measured eccentricity to bonhomie, our sympathies lie firmly with the prince.

He deals deftly with those long soliloquies and rarely verges on the melodramatic, neatly denying the overexposure Hamlet's almost constant presence on the stage can bring. A superb, exacting performance.

Peter Egan is dynamic as Claudius, regal as the usurper, devious in his politics but with little chemistry present in his scenes with a fickle and sometimes inaudible Gertrude (Frances Tomelty) - perhaps illustrating his ambition as one of power rather than of love.

Robert Demeger gives Polonius more character than is usual with his insidious handling of his children and as a garrulous sycophantic courtier, while Laura Rees is excellent as Ophelia whose madness scene is superbly balanced between pathos and insanity.

With Rosencrantz (Brendan O'Hea), Guildenstern (Nick Bagnall) and Horatio (Bob Barrett) credible, Adam Dodd dynamic as Laertes, and Mido Hamada convincing as the warring statesman Fortinbras, this is one not to be missed.

My only negative observation, for what it’s worth, is in regard to costume where the insistence on colour co-ordination is an irritant. I’d hope the audience could work out affiliations without colour coding. But that’s a minor criticism of an otherwise tremendous production.

- Karen Bussell (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth)