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A CurtainUp London Review
The Original Review at Stratford
Gregory Doran must be the heir apparent to the RSC empire. His productions of Shakespeare have been outstanding and this is his first stab at the Princely Dane. Apparently the idea of putting David Tennant into Hamlet came to the RSC when on Who Do You Think You Are?, a BBC Genealogy programme which traces interesting ancestors for celebrities, Tennant was seen holding a skull.
Tennant is well known nationally as the latest and most popular incarnation of BBC television's Dr Who but before this television career, he was a regular on the London stage and played Romeo, the lead, Jack Absolute, in The Rivals and one of the twins in The Comedy of Errors for the RSC.
So let's get Patrick Stewart's Claudius out of the way first. Doran has taken the "smiling villain" quote as his theme. Stewart smiles innocuously at the court, a bland neutral but mildly affable presence while Gertrude (Penny Downie) does enough acting with her expressive eyes as the doting mother for the both of them.
I remember it being said on second marriage not to expect your children from the first marriage to be as taken with your new love as you are. And Hamlet is a case in point. Claudius forgets the name of Hamlet's school and Gertrude prompts Wittenberg, but then Claudius quickly ignores Hamlet and switches to an effusive welcome of Laertes.
Stewart also doubles as the ghost in a rather curious Samurai outfit with a helmet. It's always a problem how to show the ghost armed cap a pe, from head to foot, wearing his beaver up in a modern dress production and still make him such a disturbing image that Hamlet cries, " Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!" Stewart's ghost is this rather benign figure with a curly grey beard and a shuffling gait like anyone's kindly grandfather.
What motivated the double casting oft employed in more cash strapped productions, but more often seeing the Player King or the Gravedigger doubling as the Ghost? Thrift is an unlikely explanation for the Royal Shakespeare Company! The problem with Claudius' not being an arch villain and the ghost not really terrifying is that this cuts down on the dramatic sympathy for Hamlet's hero quotient.
In many ways, I surprised myself with feeling that this is Oliver Ford Davies' show. Doran as director, instead of making Polonius tedious has allowed the rest of the cast to express their boredom with his repeated instructions. So Polonius actually forgets what he was saying in some wonderful senior moments and there is a break for laughter.
Another interesting angle for me, was Laertes (Edward Bennett), who rather than expressing brotherly concern, severely lectures Ophelia (Mariah Gale) on her dealings with Hamlet and the message I got was that Laertes is a chip of the old block — at this point he is likely to grow into his tedious father, Polonius. Ophelia points out his hypocrisy in the "primrose path" speech and finds multicoloured condoms in his suitcase. When the whole audience is ready to mouth along the "neither a borrower or a lender be" lines, Laertes and Ophelia get there first as if they too have heard this speech before!
The director has allowed David Tennant to be an amusing, likeable friend with Horatio (Peter de Jersey) and the players, so that he harnesses the fan elements in the audience to the play's advantage. We are allowed to smile. Our student prince is a popular celebrity. Tennant's Hamlet is approachable, accessible and very energetic physically. He's essentially an ordinary young man beset by extraordinary events. He's initially resentful, but always intelligent, sometimes introspective. Hamlet stresses the incestuous aspect of the marriage, saying "married with mine uncle" as if it were unthinkable, a mortal sin to marry your husband's brother. We feel his agitation as he hears about the ghost and after he has seen the spirit for himself, he wildly runs about. Later he swaps his suit for a T shirt and jeans and it is straight into the most famous soliloquy of all, note, before the inner play as in the First Quarto. The entrance of the players is a turning point as Hamlet is so involved in the direction and plans for their play and Hamlet points at the theatre audience to involve them telling them "the play's the thing. . ."
The staging of the play within a play is astonishing. The pre-play dumbshow is mimed with grotesques reminding me of Lindsay Kemp's alternative and shocking drag burlesque dance sequences. The queen (Jim Hooper) is excessively made up, large vulgar, his breasts exposed. The poisoner (David Ajala) comes down on wires and the body of the king (Samuel Dutton) flies up — an unfortunate direction as we are told the " unhouseled, disappointed, unannealed" body would have to go to Purgatory first. (Can there be any doubt that Shakespeare was Catholic?) The costumes for the main part of The Mousetrap are the richest of Jacobean velvets and farthingale which make us gasp at their opulence. During the play, Gertrude and Claudius sit square, high up on thrones facing the audience so that we can see every reaction. As Claudius rises and calls for lights he walks over to Hamlet, shines the lantern in Hamlet's face and shakes his head in disapproval like an old woman tutting on a bus who sees misbehaving schoolchildren. The first act finished with Hamlet with a sword poised ready to kill Claudius and the second opens with this frozen scene.
In the bedroom, Penny Downie's Gertrude obviously loves her son but is disappointed that he cannot accept her choice of husband. If she had to choose between them, we feel she would choose Claudius. Hamlet shows Gertrude the images of the royal brothers in newspapers. After the closet scene, as Claudius massages her shoulders, I did feel a singular sinister moment as if he could just as easily strangle her but maybe it just the massage that is creepy? Gertrude hangs on to Claudius and then pulls away looking disturbed as if she has remembered her promises to her son and is now confused. When the newly returned Laertes asks Claudius who killed his father, Gertrude pleads with her eyes, as if to say, "Don't tell him it was my son?" Ophelia's madness has her skipping and running and dancing — her physicality making the point about the similarity between her and Hamlet. They both express mental turmoil by dashing about.
The sets are simple, the black mirrored backdrop I found distracting but it may functionally improve the sightlines for those at the edge of the almost circular Courtyard Theatre. The programme tells us the design is deliberate in this mirrored production. The main theatre at Stratford is currently being rebuilt.
I loved the staging of Fortinbras' army moving through with those crossed over waving flashlights marking out the path for the camouflage uniformed soldiers. It's hard in the 21st century to equate war over a small strip of land with lofty principles! They are observed by Hamlet wearing a backpack like any student returned from travelling. Peter de Jersey's Horatio is noble, older, maybe more mentor than contemporary. The gravedigger (Mark Hadfield), often a tedious scene, here laughed infectiously at his own jokes. The duel is brilliantly done and Laertes unashamedly cuts Hamlet's neck viciously. Horatio closes the play but without Fortinbras.
There wasn't a single empty seat I could see. This production will be coming to London in November and it will be fascinating to see how David Tennant's Hamlet matures. He already speaks the verse beautifully and clearly, and the depth of emotional content will increase as he settles into the role, especially if Claudius could acquire some villainy.
There. . . I haven't mentioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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