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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp London Review
by Lizzie Loveridge
No more like my father, than I to Hercules --Hamlet
They said that it could not be done. They said that he was too old, too fat, too ugly and too gay to play Hamlet. So Simon Russell Beale, one of our leading Shakespearean actors had to prove them wrong in his fortieth year. He was cast against body type as Ariel by Sam Mendes in The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company and was waiting for Mendes to direct him in Hamlet. He has, in the main, stayed in the theatre sometimes playing Shakespeare's villains, Richard III at the RSC and then Iago at the National. Last year I saw him at the National Theatre in Edward Bulwer Lytton's Money playing a sympathetic hero, a noble character, even a romantic figure, so that I knew it were possible for him to succeed as Hamlet. He has such a beautiful and natural voice and a clarity of speech that we hear every word, notice more of Shakespeare's verse. In Money he was directed by John Caird who offered to direct him in Hamlet when it became apparent that Mendes was too committed to other projects.
I, for one, wish that Sam Mendes had found the time. John Caird's production is low lit, dark and dingy with hanging lanterns of the type found in Catholic churches, the stage filled with old leather trunks. Every scene change gives us church music as if to emphasise that this is a play written by a Catholic, a man who believes in damnation and purgatory and unexpurgated sin. Beautifully spoken as Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet was, I was always watching a play, which at times slowed and found some of the first night audience heads lolling. This of course did not interfere with the scale of their applause at the end. I carry with me the memory of so many Hamlets, so I grant that it is harder to convince.
The political element has been removed with the Fortinbras scenes cut so that the ending is death rather than hope, despite the cross of light which cuts the stage into four. This trims the production to three and a half hours. Elsinore ceases to be a kingdom under siege without the context of the invading army. This also eliminates Hamlet's "How do all occasions inform against us" soliloquy, a shame considering Russell Beale's talent for clarity of unaffected verse.
Russell Beale's performance was so natural that looking back, I wondered whether he left out feigning madness or whether my head too was lolling? In avoiding melodrama, Beale plays an understated Hamlet, bleak, more ironic than full of emotion but this inevitably detracts from the depth of the soliloquies. We see the end result but not the process of Hamlet's indecision. His detachment and disillusionment is occasionally lit by humour. The "pipe" scene when he confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for attempting to manipulate him is a success but in the soliloquy, "To be or not to be", Russell Beale does not appear to be man contemplating taking his own life.
Unusually Denis Quilley doubles as Polonius and the Gravedigger. As Polonius he is a great bear of a man, emphasised by dressing him in a shaggily trimmed, full length waistcoat like those portraits of Tudor ambassadors. As the politician, Quilley seems miscast to me, too large a figure and less the bureaucrat and fuss pot. Laertes (Guy Lankester) and Ophelia (Cathryn Bradshaw) mouth his words as if they have heard their father's advice all too often. Peter McEnery's Claudius stalks around the stage, his tall frame, pony tail and pearl drop ear ring, delineating his vanity and envy. Gertrude (Sara Kestelman) gets increasingly confused and seems more elderly as the play progresses. When Hamlet goes to her bed chamber, she is reminiscing, sifting mementoes of her wedding, love letters, a veil, a dried bouquet, from her trunk. Cathryn Bradshaw's peevish airhead Ophelia, all bust, curls and twittering voice goes mad, careering between male impersonation and foul mouthed streetgirl. Never for a moment did I believe that she would be able to distract Hamlet. Only the ghost (Sylvester Morand) was the best I have seen it, so insubstantial with clever lighting and the right amount of mist that I felt I could put my hand through him as the lighting made the apparition fade and recede, only to appear again on a different part of the stage. Morand has a wonderfully, naturally resonating voice, but used exaggerated dramatic gesture to underline his plight. The ghost scenes worked well helped by Simon Day's solidly dependable and intelligent Horatio.
Tim Hatley's design begins and ends the play with the characters in lit frames, like portraits, their costumes from Italian Renaissance paintings, Claudius as Bellini's Doge and Gertrude with that high twin beehive hairstyle, a stylised reminder that this is art and not life. The production has been previewing since July, it has been on tour in Malvern and Elsinore and will travel round the country and to Stockholm in between showing at the National, hence the sparsity of set, I'm tempted to say truncated, with just the luggage, lanterns and cross. The final scene shows the ghost leading a parade of the dead as the cross of light illuminates the stage, an eerie wind blows and we hear again the celestial choir. My final thought is that Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet might be best recorded for listening to and that is not because I agree with those who criticised his casting for not looking like Hamlet.
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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