Everyone should see Hamlet at leastÂ once during their life. If you have never seen it then David Farr’s new RSC production would be an excellent place to start. The story is told very clearly. It is fast paced and easy to follow. The distractions of minor parts of the plot are minimised and the text is extremely skilfully cut to three hours and a quarter playing time. If you have seen Hamlet, or seen it many times, or know the text well, then this is also the production for you.Â Some very interesting things are done with the cutting and very few significant lines are missing, although I did miss Hamlet’s ‘I took thee for thy better’ in the aftermath of Polonius’s murder. There are several surprises. Fortinbras’s arrival at the end of the play is mentioned but we are spared his presence and hisÂ pompous speech. We are also spared Horatio’s final eulogy to Hamlet.Â The long slow Act I is radically cut, leading to a brisk pace and Â unexpected dramatic tension. Ophelia remains on stage in her open grave for the Act V debacle, as does the chair in which Polonius was killed.
DespiteÂ looking considerably older than Hamlet’s thirty years, Jonathan Slinger does a good job with Hamlet. Despite his absurdly pompous (and erroneous)Â claim in The Guardian that nobody has ever portrayed a psychologically understandable Hamlet, this Hamlet is believable. Although physically Slinger could haveÂ applied more carefully Hamlet’s injunctions about playing, vocally he is excellent. You can hear every word and the soliloquies are rarely done in the way you expect them to be done, with the result that, however well you know them, you listen to them. No mean feat.Â Â At the beginning he looks like a rather physically dishevelled middle-aged boy. In the middle of the play he wears a fencing outfit which looks like a partly donned straightjacket soÂ he isÂ constantly physically lopsided and awkward, in contrast to the physically poised Horatio and Laertes.Â Transformed in Act V,Â he enters in a suit, spectacles discarded and body balanced. Madness, assumed or not, has been left behind, althoughÂ irrationally explosiveÂ rage is still there in his reaction to Laertes.
I didn’t really understand why the lovely Pippa Nixon was made to look so dowdy in her earlier scenes. I also didn’t really understand why she behaved like a sex mad tart at the beginning of her first scene with Hamlet. She is certainly badly treated: Polonius orders her about by clicking his fingers and Laertes, behaving sententiously just like his father, ignores any feelings she might have. Hamlet is vile and violent to her in the nunnery scene. Â Nixon is wonderful, though, in her mad scenes – delicate, tender, aetherial and vocally subdued. Overall, though, it is not clear what we are to make of her relationship with Hamlet (and vice versa).
Charlotte Cornwell’s Gertrude is played really interestingly. You don’t quite know what to make of her in the early scenes – very faithful to the text. But her shock in the bedroom scene leaves her devastated and her repentance is clear. Gertrude appears to heed the lesson Hamlet gives her at the end of the bedroom scene. Her relationship withÂ ClaudiusÂ is symbolised by the physical distance betweenÂ them during the rest of the play. Gertrude’s gorgeously stylish mourning dress in Act V accentuated her isolation.
Greg’s Hicks’s Claudius is chilling when we first encounter him. Her continues to get colder and colder as the play continues. Slim, elegant and lacking in human feeling, he cares for no one except himself.Â Playing the Ghost of Old Hamlet, too, HicksÂ is completely audible. Less so with Claudius when you often have to strain to hear him, lest, perhaps, we hear too easily how nasty he really is. The decision to have him completely ingore the dying Gertrude was the climax to the cold horror which surrounded him.
Despite losing his best speeches as Horatio (and Shakespeare doesn’t give him many anyway), Alex Waldman is poised, balanced and above all real as Horatio. Luke Norris is similarly unflashy and convincing as Laertes. David Fielder’s First Gravedigger is delightful in what remains of his part and Polonius is well played by Robin Soans – commanding, extremely brisk and politically astute. It is the speed of delivery which makes the characterisation so interesting. Polonius knows exactly what he is doing and there is not an iota of dotage in this portrayal.
I didn’t warm to Oliver Ryan’s Rosencrantz or Nicolas Tennant’s Guildenstern. Presumably Hamlet was right not to trust them. They and Hamlet appeared to have come from Denmark’s Birkbeck College, London – a university for mature students. This was a decision I didn’t think added anything useful to the play.
I don’t want to say a great deal about The Mousetrap. It was rivetting – full of decisions and surprises – beautifully done and a fine end to the first half of the play. Bits of the textÂ are modernised but not spoilt. Â I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning details.
I felt that in The Winter’s Tale there was much splendid acting, despite a silly and distracting set. Perhaps 2013 is going to be the year of stupid sets in the main theatre, though I hope not.Â Why on earth Hamlet should be set in the main hall of a church hall ot school, acting both as theatre and gym I have no idea. It’s a give-away thatÂ the setting was described in The Guardian as ‘a run-down public school fencing gym’. Is Denamrk a public school? Why? How can you tell it’s a public school? Careless and sloppyÂ decision making as well as stupid and distracting. Â I could find no usefulÂ link between the setting and the action that we were witnessing. At least the stuff was minimal and at least the RSC was showing off neither the fly tower nor the understage for the sake of it this time. Small mercies. The set did take on some character from the Fortinbras scene onwards, though. Fortinbras’s soldiers partly demolished the stage floor, reminding meÂ of the much better set dismantling that went on in a production of As You Like ItÂ decades ago at the point when the action moved from court to country.Â A sketchy backdrop with a lone tree replaces the back of the hall stage and the floor mostly disappears to leave a fencing strip and earth round it. Nature (human, presumably, and psychological) begins to return. This results inÂ a transformation in Act V as the play moves effectively to ritual and symbolism, perhaps to a more adult environment. What happened to the set in the end shows that Jon Bauser knows how to design. Next time I see one of his designs I hope he will have thought about the whole play and not just a bit of it.
This is the tragedy of Hamlet. The cut ending means that the audience is left thinking about the characters and their fate and not about the succession and the aftermath of Hamlet’s death. It is an appropriate way to end a twenty-first century production.
This production is well worth seeing. Come and stay at Moss Cottage and enjoy a special night or two away.