Ian Brown is the latest in the line of incoming artistic directors to prologue his incumbency by tackling a Shakespearean big beast. It's a risky strategy. If successful - especially with Hamlet, believed by many to be the greatest play ever written - you're left with the problem of how to follow up; and if unsuccessful, you condemn yourself to working out your contract in a game of catch up.
Brown mitigates both these eventualities. He already has nine previous productions to his credit at this address, and Hamlet is the second, not the first, production in the co-ordinated programming of his first season in the chair. It was preceded, and is closely harnessed to, Gemma Bodinetz's September staging of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The two productions share a set (by Angela Davies) - a completely empty timber box with a dozen doors along the walls like a massive Kafkaesque prison cell - and, for dedicated anoraks, there are sly references back to the earlier show, not least in Greg Haiste's flamboyantly comical cameo as the Player Queen and in Gertrude's pedantic correction of Claudius when he mixes up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
But what of the Prince of Denmark? Christopher Eccleston is every inch the philosophy student, struggling to make sense of the bizarre and horrific hand that life has dealt him. For the most part, his is a somewhat detached analysis, as if conducting some Platonic debate where from time to time he catches and debunks his own posturing. What is striking is the sheer physicality of Eccleston's performance - the preening angularity of his gaunt body as he leans backwards, arms extravagantly in motion and face gurning, almost giving his own signed performance to the hard-of-hearing, before being brought up short before some knobbly conundrum and running his hand obsessively over his stubbled pate.
This Hamlet is, for all his questioning, in control of the scenario and, with
the exception of his brisk and efficient minder, Horatio (Neil McKinven),
not unduly concerned by anyone else - least of all by Ophelia (a weird and
indistinctly spoken interpretation from Maxine Peake, starting out like a
Bloomsbury woman-in-sensible-shoes and going to her death - after a
protracted mad scene - as a Goth). Eccleston's performance can perhaps be
faulted for being light on emotion and angst, but it's a fine and clear
reading of the role, well worthy of the acclaim it received from the first
With Hamlet himself in informal black training gear, the rest of the court
of Elsinore, denuded of all furniture and properties and framed by the
looming timber walls, is kitted out as a sinister Edwardian reception
committee. Malcolm Scates' Claudius has a steely plausibility and a
guilty tendency to be over-affectionate towards Gertrude (Brigit Forsyth,
got up to look alarmingly like a younger version of the current Elizabeth
Windsor). Forsyth, for her part, maintains the dignity of her position but is
always capable of the revulsion with which she finally turns her back on
Claudius; and Kevin McMonagle's Polonius is a splendidly fussy and verbose
All in all, Brown's tenancy of the West Yorkshire Playhouse could hardly have enjoyed a more auspicious beginning.