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Review Round-up: Simm Hamlet Divides Opinion

Sheffield Theatres attracted a strong showing of major critics on Wednesday (22 September, previews from 16 September) as the John Simm-led Hamlet in the Crucible went head-to-head with Michael Gambon’s West End bow in Krapp's Last Tape.

Simm is the latest in a long line of famous faces to take on the Bard’s biggest role, following the likes of David Tennant and Jude Law in recent years. He’s joined in the principal cast by John Nettles – an RSC veteran and TV drama favourite – doubling as Claudius/Ghost, alongside Michelle Dockery (as Ophelia), Barbara Flynn (Gertrude), Colin Tierney (Horatio) and Hugh Ross (Polonius).

Directed by Paul Miller, Hamlet continues to 23 October 2010. It will overlap with the National Theatre production, starring Rory Kinnear in the title role, which opens next month (7 October, previews from 30 September).

Overnight critics were decidedly mixed in their reactions both to Simm and to Miller’s staging...

  • Ron Simpson on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - "My prime reaction to Paul Miller’s tidy and workmanlike production of Hamlet for Sheffield Crucible is of disappointment, for what seemed likely to be inspired casting creates little magic and the interpretation of the play remains oddly detached and bloodless ... 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 ... 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 ... but he lacks magnetism and, like all characters in this production, has no hinterland."
  • Lynne Walker in the Independent (four stars) - "He's scarcely princely and anything but regal. But John Simm's Prince of Denmark has all the indications of a troubled young man, an outsider who's used to considering his inner thoughts ... Shakespeare aficionados or first-timers, they are treated to a touchingly boyish Hamlet, in an interpretation of this enigmatic role in which Simm's gestures are slight, his acting never over-emphatic and his face always just one grimace away, it seemed, from morphing into a potato ... The unshowy, northern-born-and-bred Simm knows how to convey an awkward interior life with ease, to play the tormented loner with a quietly biting, ironic wit ... But it's not all due to Simm that Paul Miller's minimalist production proves so enthralling ... Next week it is the National Theatre's turn to stage the play. Their Hamlet, Rory Kinnear, has a hard act to follow."
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) - "Simm has done remarkably little stage work and this is his first crack at Shakespeare. And I am afraid that in comparison with Tennant he seems like a boy sent to do a man’s work ... There is remarkably little inwardness, and throughout the show, no impression at all of the spiritual growth that has always struck me as the play’s most moving feature. All Simm exudes at the end is a resigned fatalism. The great Hamlets find much more than that ... Elsewhere Paul Miller’s production, with an impressive split level design by Tom Scutt, works better. John Nettles offers a powerful double as a devious guilt-racked Claudius and a truly terrifying ghost. Michelle Dockery is a deeply touching Ophelia, all the more so for not overplaying the madness, and Hugh Ross is a wonderfully funny Polonius ... There is, however, no getting away from the fact that Simm is seriously disappointing in the crucial role of Hamlet."
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - "John Simm, late of Life on Mars, is first in the field in the current Hamlet stakes and offers a fine, intelligent, incisively spoken performance – one well worth catching. But Hamlet is a play as well as a role and Simm would do even better if Paul Miller's production were something more than blandly efficient and offered a much more clearly defined Elsinore ... Although Tom Scutt's design, with its hints of birch trees and Winter Palace windows, here makes gestures towards eastern Europe, Miller's modern-dress production fails to give the play's events a clear political, social or psychological context ... But, even if the production lacks a living context, Simm lends the evening some necessary urgency. He makes a tense, wiry, permanently troubled figure with a capacity for swift thought and a voice that cuts through rhetoric like a razor through stubble."
  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) - "No tights or cloaks in Paul Miller’s direction, no romance, no sackbuts. The modern setting - by ditching the romance - does the Crucible’s production a lot of favours, though some may find the three and a half hours a touch gruelling ... Simm - like David Tennant before him - is a strong enough actor to carry it, though like many before him he wrestles with the difficulty of conveying that this is indeed a noble mind overthrown ... John Nettles - hero of an earlier TV age as Bergerac - reminds us that he was a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, providing a wonderfully spooky Ghost as well as Claudius ... Simm won’t be to everyone’s taste, and at times he succumbs to the iambic staccato with which nervous new Shakespeareans tend to keep the energy up in difficult patches. But he travels through the great soliloquies with intelligence and emotional truth ... Only Ophelia really worried me: Michelle Dockery plays it calm, even mocking, in early scenes with the result that her disintegration doesn’t quite wash. But that, frankly, is mainly Shakespeare’s fault."
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (two stars) - "The great Hamlet showdown is under way. In a fortnight we can report on Rory Kinnear’s assault on Elsinore at the National Theatre ... To get from one end of the tragedy to the other, leaving the crowd mopping their eyes, you need stamina and charisma. And, despite a bizarre opening scene in which he sidles on and lies down, 40-year-old Simm does well as a boyish ‘young’ Dane. For the first half, he is lord of all he surveys. But the going gets boggy later on. Cracks show when he has to attack his mother for betraying his father. Having done good work cloaking himself in madness, the semi-sexual assault on his mother lapses into raving ... Instead of letting Simm explore his Northern soul, Miller presents a generic Elsinore .. Barbara Flynn is an ample, mature, Gucci Gertrude who seems disappointed rather than traumatised by the mayhem. John Nettles’ Claudius doesn’t entirely shake off Bergerac — although his rasping ghost is an amusing confection of The Exorcist and Hammer Horror.
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