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A CurtainUp Review

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.  
--- Hamlet

Sam West as Hamlet
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Do I tire of seeing Hamlet? No. Never. Each production I see has, if not a new slant, a difference of emphasis and that emphasis is a provoking source for comparison and discussion. Steven Pimlott's modern dress production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is of the third millennium, a Hamlet set in an Elsinore of "corporate culture", full of sycophantic hangers on and flatterers with. a minimal set of walls adorned only by the functional lighting. There are no courtiers dressed in finery, just a procession of amorphous grey suits who applaud with their hands held at face level. It is also a bleak picture of a corrupt society with no soul. There is nothing between the audience and the text. Steven Pimlott's four hour uncut Hamlet is uncluttered with theatrical trappings and tradition.

The production involves the audience, from its opening blinding spotlight trained on the auditorium to the soliloquies spoken directly to us. During the "mirror up to nature" speech, the house lights are turned up and Hamlet (Samuel West) scrutinises the audience. Pimlott uses these meta-theatrical devices to break the dramatic illusion, to remind us that we are watching a play. Claudius (Larry Lamb) explains why he cannot pray, not, as is usual on his knees in the chapel, but standing, speaking directly to the audience.

There are other aspects of modernity and originality. During "the play within a play", the reactions of Gertrude (Marty Cruikshank) and Claudius are not just marked but are recorded on a camcorder. Claudius is surrounded by the force of gun toting Mafia style bodyguards. Hamlet is interrogated under a spotlight. When het kisses Claudius farewell in the confused "mother and father are as one" speech after Polonius' murder, Claudius lifts him off the ground in a crushing embrace and sucks at Hamlet's face like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

Sam West as the prince, or heir apparent to the chairman of the board in this case, is immensely likeable, a student prince with tousled blonde curls who sits on the floor with Rosencrantz (Wayne Cater) and Guildenstern (Sean Hannaway) and shares a joint with them. As the play opens he is seen, hood up on his black track top, sulking, not joining in the congratulatory reception for Claudius and Gertrude. With the entrance of the players, Hamlet shows both his acting and directing skills, more at home with these denim clad, casually dressed players than with the self seeking courtiers. West speaks the lines well and naturally with many an original interpretative resonance. His is an intelligent, underplayed Hamlet, with his madness barely noticeable. West uses the players' Priam/Pyrrhus play to bring to the surface his own doubts about the murder necessitated by vengeance.

I was less enthusiastic about Larry Lamb's Claudius although he started well. Ophelia's (Kerry Condon) part is always problematic, the actress here seems as out of her depth as the poor unfortunate girl is. I liked the tragic and very human ghost, (Christopher Good) crying real tears, who leaves us in no doubt that the crime committed against him is not the murder as such but letting him die with his sins unconfessed.

The production's major flaw for me stems from the large size of the theatre which I feel interferes with what Pimlott is trying to achieve. The audience needs to be close to naturalistic acting, to be able to monitor facial expression closely. I also became more irritated by the lighting changes, of colour and of placing of the tracking spotlights, for each change of scene, blue for the ghostly battlements (which was slow in meeting its russet mantle cue), and green for the bilious court.

I shall remember the innovations:
  • Claudius' deliberate and villainous switching of the swords by taking the poisoned one from Laertes and giving it to Hamlet, rather than the usual muddle in the duel.
  • The inclusion of the political aspect of the play so often cut these days with Fortinbras' (Finn Caldwell) progress, here to the noise of aircraft, and final entrance.
  • The significant change to the sweeping away of the old regime which has the fickle court applauding Fortinbras, the new leader with the same high clapping. The effect is to leave the audienc, at the point when we should be applauding, feeling that we do not want to join in this distasteful display. Pimlott lays at our door the disturbing implication that we, the audience, are passively complicitous in creating a climate where people like Claudius can thrive.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Steven Pimlott

Starring: Samuel West
With: Giles Fagan, Glenn Chapman, Michael Mears, John Dougall, Christopher Good, Larry Lamb, Chuk Iwuji, James Curran, Ben Meyjes, Alan David, Marty Cruikshank, Kerry Condon, Adam Kay, Wayne Cater, Sean Hannaway, Finn Caldwell, Robert Jezek, Jennifer McEvoy, Damian Kearney, Hattie Morahan, Alex Zorbas, Conor Moloney
Set Design: Alison Chitty
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Music by Jason Carr
Fights by Malcolm Ranson
Running time: Four hours twenty minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to 2nd April 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 11th December 2001 performance at the Barbican, Silk Street, London EC2
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