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Hamlet & the Duchess

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Rory Kinnear, the excellent new Hamlet at the National, said the other day that it was best to see a show after it had run itself in and was not stiff with critics in the stalls or nerves on the stage.

I'm not at all sure he's right about this. I saw Hamlet last Friday night, eight days after the opening night, and the audience was settling in for what they knew was a hit show. The critics had told them what to expect. They purred.

At the end, a chap in a pinstriped suit stood up, stretched, and then congratulated his party for sitting through something they all obviously felt they had endured as the right thing to do. "Well done," he boomed.
Rory was right on one point: the actors had certainly relaxed and were happily going through their paces. Clare Higgins seemed very relaxed indeed, playing Gertrude as a slatternly drunk with not a care in the world.

So, while I agree with everyone else that this is a very good production indeed - it's particularly good when Hamlet is mixing it with his friends, or the Players - and it's staged by Nicholas Hytner with exemplary spatial awareness in a large, adaptable state room - it doesn't exactly bristle with urgency or anger, or political excitement.

And some of the supporting performances -- Horatio, Laertes, Fortinbras, Ophelia - are woeful. 

But I suppose it was nice, for a change, to be surrounded by "real people," even if they didn't really look as though they were deserving beneficiaries of the Travelex £10 ticket scheme -- too posh, too old, too well-dressed.

As an "experience" I much preferred sitting in the Royal & Derngate in Northampton the other night at Laurie Sansom's highly imaginative production of The Duchess of Malfi, which is bathed in the madrigals of John Webster's contemporary, Gesualdo, and reeking of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.

When I say "Royal & Derngate" I mean, of course, the Royal part of it, the old Victorian auditorium where the usherettes and bar staff used to wear black dresses and white pinafores; the Derngate was overrun with the beer-swilling comedy crowd, flocking to see Sean Lock (and why not? Lock's one of the funniest blokes on the circuit).

The Duchess herself is played beautifully, and movingly, by Charlotte Emmerson, an actress who combines real sensuality with stern moral fibre. Her garrotting with silk ribbons is horrible to watch but also liberating: she ascends to the life beyond in the throes of torture, and she joins a tableau vivant of ghosts and wax dummies in the final chaotic scenes.

All this was absorbed with something like rapture by an audience of schoolchildren. On my train back to London afterwards, a party of thirty of them, with teachers, were going as far as Milton Keynes. They had read the play, they had loved the production, and their talk was animated and competitive.

The whole evening - the beautiful theatre, the audience, the play itself (an always astounding masterpiece) -- reminded me of evenings long ago at the Glasgow Citizens, when Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse worked a similar magic.  

The Northampton front-of-house, incidentally, is as first rate as the Citizens used to be, too. A box office staff member checked the times of my trains back to London, discussed the length of the production and generally gave the impression of the sort of involvement and interest you seldom find in West End theatre box offices these days.

When you've travelled a fair distance and braved the dismal town centre of a place like Northampton after dark - I am dismayed to see that the one good hotel in the old days is now a Travel Lodge - this counts for a very great deal indeed.

I'd even go so far as to say it puts you in the best possible mood for the show itself.   



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