Here's a prince for our time
By Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard 06.08.08
Having travelled through the starry outer-spaces of Dr Who, David Tennant comes hurtling back to earth. He arrives as an authentic Hamlet for today in a spectacular production by Gregory Doran that boasts period trappings and the modern accoutrements of dinner jackets, golden chandeliers and cocktails: a combination of rapiers, revolvers and good old poison do the fatal damage, while condoms slip out of Laertes's suitcase. Although this Prince of Denmark will not make the angels weep, Tennant still achieves something sensational and never managed in the past 40 years.
He unlocks the key to the mystery of Hamlet and offers a convincing explanation for the prince's famous delay in avenging his father's murder. Tennant's explanation is lifted from psychiatry's realm. We have seen the odd Hamlet in a nervous breakdown's grip and even Hamlets turned temporarily mad. Tennant, though, justifies the Prince's turbulent behaviour afresh.
His humorous Hamlet emerges as an undiagnosed manic depressive, whose mood swings render him temperamentally incapable of fulfilling a revenge scenario. The prince's extreme costume changes - from smart suit to jeans and T-shirt, shoeless and sockless excitement in the players' scene - mark shifts in the manic-depressive cycle. When he returns from England he has scarcely matured and wears the woolly hat and scarf of the eternal student.
I was dazzled and excited by this concept, but never enthralled by it in the way I was by the great Hamlets of Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale and Ben Whishaw. Tennant elegantly goes through all the motions without being caught up in them. He makes fine, mocking, imitative fun of Oliver Ford Davies's suspicious, smugly opinionated Polonius, sometimes adrift on senility's stream of subconsciousness. After the revelatory play scene, wearing a little crown of his own and pinioned to a swivel chair, he turns wildly exultant, exits with an exuberant "whee" to England.
Did my ears, though, deceive me, or as Tennant breaks down, grief-struck and bent double in his first soliloquy, does he not revealingly refer to his "too too solid" rather than the now generally accepted "sullied" flesh? For there remains something disconcertingly solid and invulnerable about his prince, even when facing Patrick Stewart's unspooky ghost, a role Stewart doubles with a fascinating, original Claudius. Playing him as a cool, inscrutable and sinister fixer, who forgets the name of Hamlet's university, Stewart's monarch betrays no guilt and virtually commits suicide in the final debacle.
Tennant, then, wears his melancholia, grief and anger as if they were accessories rather than elemental feelings. Just once, when he clings to Gertrude's waist in the closet scene, like a little boy lost, did he generate serious emotion. It is Mariah Gale's superb Ophelia, dancing half-naked, flourishing a vast bunch of flowers, who pierces the heart.
Doran's production, with odd cuts and textual rearrangements, lacks sufficient sense of Denmark under threat of war. Fortinbras never poses a big threat - remaining wordless when finally arriving to seize the kingdom. Robert Jones's imposing design with its tall, mirrored doors, whose glass splinters and cracks when Hamlet shoots Polonius, conveys no idea of a court society beset by spying and surveillance. Penny Downie's disengaged Gertrude just cannot keep her hands, eyes or lips on this Claudius. By the time it reaches London I hope Tennant can endow his historic Hamlet with what it crucially misses - a heart.
It's not one of the most sparkling reviews of David's performance, but at least Nicholas de Jongh doesn't say David is horrible.