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Hamlet (RSC)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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There are some things even Time Lords can’t fix. So, the bad back that forced David Tennant to miss the previous night’s performance meant that he missed the press night too – and instant fame for Edward Bennett, the understudy catapulted into the spotlight.

This makes it tricky for a reviewer: Hamlet is a play that is dominated by the central character and although the RSC makes much of its ensemble acting, Bennett’s Hamlet will not be, nor cannot be, the same as Tennant’s. This is not to unduly criticise Bennett, who steps into the role superbly and won a standing ovation from a sympathetic audience. But he doesn’t have Tennant’s gifts for mimicry and he’s a prince of a little more sombreness.

He’s sustained by the quality of the ensemble acting. Gregory Doran has marshalled a brilliant supporting cast, probably the best that I’ve seen. Patrick Stewart is a magnificent Claudius, the epitome of a sharp-eyed, calculating schemer. I liked the way that he addressed Laertes before Hamlet when discussing the pair’s future education and his admonishing shake of the head to Hamlet after the play scene served a double purpose; an indication that Hamlet had overstepped the mark and a chilly warning that the prince should watch his step. This is certainly a king not to be trifled with.

He’s complemented by Penny Downie’s passionate Gertrude, full of vigour at the start of the play, self-loathing by the end, willingly drinking the poisoned wine.

Oliver Ford Davies plays Polonius beautifully, managing to portray the amiable old buffer, whose children complete his pat homilies for him, while, at the same time, hinting at the calculating political mind that has brought him to such a position. And yet, his memory failures and wandering mind suggests a man who knows that he’s nearing the end of his active life. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia is equally strong, sketching the descent from a confident young woman to pitiful madness.

Not everything works. There are some strange cuts; we’re never informed how Hamlet managed to extract himself from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and find his way back in Denmark. Even more confusingly, Fortinbras is virtually cut from the play, making a token, and silent, appearance at the end, probably much to the confusion of any Tennant-inspired Hamlet first-timers. It’s not just the question of losing the closing speech, Denmark is in a state of anxiety about Fortinbras’ intentions and his appearance at the end shows the futility of so much of Claudius’ manoeuvrings. By ending with Horatio’s farewell to his friend, it emphasises the personal above the political, in contrast with what’s gone before.

The first night audience was certainly not short-changed by the non-appearance of its star. This is a superb production, brilliantly spoken, studded with both menace and tragedy. Tennant would have made for a different Hamlet but I’m not sure that it would have been improved by that much.

- Maxwell Cooter

NOTE: The following FIVE STAR review dates from august 2008 when this production premiered at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

In the first place, Hamlet should be exciting. And Gregory Doran’s full-value production for the RSC in the Courtyard is exactly that. In the second place, we should respond to Hamlet himself as a funny, fast, sardonic, headstrong prince with a streak of fatal prevarication and sense of his own intellectual superiority.

And that we certainly do. David Tennant may be television’s Doctor Who getting above himself, according to snobs and ignoramuses (sorry to include Jonathan Miller in that category), but he’s a really fine, athletic and technically accomplished classical actor to boot; as indeed were many of his Dalek-dishing predecessors, from Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker (once Olivier’s tip as his own successor) through to Christopher Ecclestone, himself an outstanding, gloomy Hamlet, and now Tennant.

The setting by Robert Jones is a hall of mirrors, hung with six chandeliers, the costumes contemporary with greatcoats and shiny armour for the switzers at Elsinore. Hamlet time-travels through his own destiny, donning red T-shirt and jeans for “To be, or not to be,” mixing a fashion page look of dinner suit and bare feet for the play scene and trudging back from exile in England in walking boots, woolly top and anorak.

So the gravedigger (Mark Hadfield) becomes a person he meets en route; he’s thus dragged back into his own tragedy as the funeral procession arrives. “Remember me” cries Patrick Stewart’s superbly resonating Ghost – doubled with his own brother/murderer, an icily calculating Claudius – and Tennant scratches his palm with a knife in a blood pact. Will he kill Claudius as the new king kneels in prayer? The stage goes to black-out in the most unusual interval break I’ve ever experienced.

We know Hamlet as much from what he says as from how he treats people. Tennant is brilliant at this, honing his wit at Polonius’s expense, delighting in the stage-loric grandness of John Woodvine’s Player King, or tolerating Osric (freshly done by Ryan Gage) with an appreciative playfulness. And he moves and speaks with the speed of light, a chameleon, a prankster, a misunderstood maverick.

This is easily the most complete Hamlet of recent years, and one of the most enjoyable. I can even live with my Oliver Ford Davies problem (sounds like the history master having a go) for the subtlety and grace he brings to Polonius, shot through the arras in a splintering glass panel. Penny Downie is a beautiful, sadly victimised and emotionally pliant Gertrude, Edward Bennett a striking Laertes and Mariah Gale a brilliantly affecting Ophelia, clutching her wild flowers – a bunch of long country stalks, for a change, not the usual posy – and tearing at her clothes with real abandon. A great evening, and a humdinger of a hit for the RSC.

- Michael Coveney


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