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Saturday, August 30, 2008


Theatre Review (Stratford-on-Avon): Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Written by David Trennery
Published August 27, 2008
Part of StageMage

David Tennant is Hamlet. It was tempting to add 'Nuff said' to that first sentence and leave it at that, but Tennant's performance is not the only excellent thing in Gregory Doran's RSC production at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon.

The opening scene is rendered all the more sinister and supernatural by the reflective surface of the thrust stage and mirrored backdrop: torch beams bounce around the auditorium like World War II searchlights frantically scanning the sky for an unseen but everpresent threat. That threat arrives in the person of Patrick Stewart who plays both Old Hamlet's Ghost and King Claudius.

Stewart is a charismatic Claudius, ruling a very different Denmark from that of his murdered brother. He hardly knows the names of his courtiers, but his immense charm and powerful presence make it unusually easy to see why Gertrude marries him. His handling of Fortinbras and later Laertes is the hallmark of a skilled politician, and even the flamboyant feasts, so hated by Hamlet, seem calculated to accustom the country to the recent regime change.

The production is modern: the costumes are contemporary and there is a pleasing contrast between the beautifully cut court suits and the characters' casual wear. Hamlet is very much a student when not a prince: David Tennant effortlessly sheds 15 of his 37 years in his T-shirt and jeans - although he does have the sense not to belt them around his hips. Guns replace swords for all but the final fight, and the revolving mirrored doors upstage are infinitely preferable to any arras.

Tennant's performance is remarkable in many ways. Hamlet is by no means a sympathetic figure, but Tennant manages to make him so through superlative handling of the soliloquies and the insanity. His grief for his father's loss is completely convincing, and upon it he builds all the doubts and dilemmas which can make the character hard for audiences to endure, successfully negotiating the fine line between Hamlet's 'crafty madness' and his genuine distress. It is also a superb physical performance. Tennant is incredibly agile on stage; moving like a great neurotic skittish spider, he seems to skip his way through the play without ever losing his focus and intensity.

In repertory through November 15 at the RSC.

Oliver Ford Davies is responsible for much of the humour with his rendition of Polonius, although Tennant gets a fair few laughs courtesy of his many fans. Edward Bennett takes Laertes from gauche schoolboy to formidable adversary, and Penny Downie is a relatively youthful and sexy Gertrude. It is perhaps inevitable, with two such famous actors in the cast (Tennant and Stewart), that the production concentrates on the conflict between Claudius and Hamlet to the slight detriment of Mariah Gale's moving Ophelia.

Director Gregory Doran's Hamlet is by no means the full text, and he has moved 'To be or not to be' from where it is in many printed editions. This flexible approach pays a pre-credit-crunch level of dividends. Nothing is omitted that could possibly contribute to either the action or the development of Hamlet's character, and all the company delve deep for meaning in every syllable of verse. Doran brings the play in at 3 hours 30 minutes: it's a long evening but it's anything but dull.

Every time I read about how physical David's performance is along with how he messes up his hair in Hamlet, I can just picture him in the mistletoe varnished study in the Doctor Who episode Tooth and Claw. It's not that he's any more physical in that episode than he is in any other episode. I just picture that particular scene where he's pacing back and forth, talking away and messing with his hair......and I love his hair!

Be sure to visit David Trennery's website. There are a number of London theatre reviews, a column about British Theatre and some short stories. It's a very nice site! Check it out!


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