Hamlet, Novello Theatre, London
Reviewed by Ivan Fallon
Monday, 12 January 2009
Hamlet with the prince has turned out to be even better than Hamlet without the prince – and that is quite something. Gregory Doran's RSC production at the Novello Theatre has been one of the best events London theatre has seen in years. It came to the capital a month ago, with enormous expectations centring around its megastar, DavidTennant, of Doctor Who fame, and opened without him.
So we had Edward Bennett, shot from Laertes to play the Great Dane, becoming an overnight star, while poor Tennant, nursing a back injury, seemed forgotten. But he came back for the final week's run, and lifted an already superb production to sublime heights. This is a Hamlet that we will talk about for years.
Tennant's Hamlet is quite different from Bennett's, but then it is also different from any other Hamlet. Tall and incredibly thin, he is like a rubber-man, bending himself into impossible shapes, his astonishingly mobile face expressing emotions from mockery, shock, anguish and madness within a single scene. He almost mutters some of the greatest lines in the English language, and throws others away so casually that it is hard to remember this is really Shakespeare. He gets laughs and he gets tears, and his soliloquies, which he delivers as deep, probing analyses of his soul, are spellbinding.
Doran set out to make Hamlet a thoroughly modern and relevant play, and he succeeds. Tennant's prince is a familiar figure to most of us: a depressive who cannot cope with his life and responsibilities, highly intelligent and utterly self-centred. It is all about the "me", and he couldn't care a fig about anyone else, including his mother (played beautifully by Penny Downie), while poor Ophelia (Mariah Gale) is a plaything. Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) is a prating old fool whom he treats with utter disdain, dragging his corpse off-stage and gleefully hiding it as if it were a game of hunt-the-treasure; only Patrick Stewart (who doubles as the Ghost) as Claudius has his measure, showing him that he has seen through his assumed madness.
Bennett, back as Laertes, brings a new dimension to that role, and he can feel pretty satisfied with what has been the most eventful month of his life. If Tennant had not returned, his Hamlet would have been rated close to the top. He did 21 performances, and at one stage it seemed likely that he would complete the run. As it is, we got two Hamlets, one good, the other great.
I wish I could have seen David's Hamlet. I'm still hoping for a DVD.