It was telling that the actors taking their bow after the performance of David Farr’s production of Hamlet last night seemed almost embarrassed that some members of the audience were on their feet in approval, myself included. But then perhaps they were unsure of their skill, or the RSC should abandon just a little bit of its over-democratic, ensemble correctness and let individuals soak up a bit more of the glory, especially with a play that so takes it out of lead actors. Reactions in the audience, particularly over Jonathan Slinger’s troubled, sometimes screechy and certainly challenging Prince, seemed a bit confused too, but if there were certainly flaws, first to the noisy praise.
A production set somewhere between Denmark in the present and on the edge of the Second War, still with its beer Keller fencing fraternities, compensates for all the problems of Titus Andronicus (reviewed below) by giving the play and the theatre straight back to the actors, and of course the playwright. Hence, despite a visually stunning design (apart from the sofas), that suddenly strips away the boards where the fencing courtiers engage in their fatal dance of death, that can only have the two-step of two one directions, backwards or forwards, to reveal the dead earth that we all face, as hard as the set above, and where Ophelia comes to lie in black ash, there is none of the fuss that impedes the players really getting to the text. While Titus engages in a glut of cultural referencing and design chic then, this Hamlet picks one presiding metaphor only, to swell the edgy paranoia, fencing and sword fighting, entirely appropriate to a playwright who, as Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of Shakespeare, has more staged fights than any of his contemporary dramatists. Thus the ghost, played with a Marleyesque queasiness worthy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Greg Hicks, the actor playing his usurping brother Claudius too, inches into the auditorium dressed in rusting wire mask and modern fencing kit, haloed in neon light, while everywhere swords are at hand to speed the easy and often casual blood-letting. Shakespeare’s were killing times, Ben Jonson killed a player in a duel and another man in single combat on the battlefield in Flanders, and the theatre was a battle of survival and wits too.
Wit is an especially Elizabethan word, of fighting intelligence in the world, so at first you wonder if Jonathan Slinger’s rather elderly Hamlet is not too much of the comic Woody Allen chez Elsinore, until his mind gets really nasty and struggles to find nobility again. Slinger looks a bit like Allen, and this is perhaps the first time the adolescent Prince has been given the qualities of a tragic clown, hint of white face mask to encourage the metaphysical agonies. At times Slinger minces a bit too much, just as both his and Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet were not absolutely convincing in the final sword fight. It is difficult to carry off, but that is less forgivable in a production like this, that places so much emphasis on the arts of duelling, mental and physical, because even if ‘the readiness is all’, no actor should close their eyes and wave their sword too camply, especially since Hamlet has something dangerous in him, and fencing is a precise, close quarter skill. Perhaps that is what undermined this Hamlet for some, that classical image of Hamlet’s manly nobility, and both nobility and real manhood are such a theme of the play, but Slinger compensates by delivering a performance of such inner pain, complexity and intelligence that he constantly makes you sit up and listen to the words again. A man who has just lost his father, a moment when he must either regress or grow up, and his own childhood too. As for the boyish mincing, it frees his thoughts and words and at times he is very funny indeed, while it is sustainable too, since the homoerotic elements of his passionate and playful male friendships are so underlined throughout. Indeed, rather than making Hamlet all aware, the play really starts to come alive when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear, and Hamlet’s need for friendship and trust is so challenged by his almost reluctant revealing of the lies and betrayals encircling him in the political and emotional corruption of Elsinore.
Farr and by extension Slinger have gone for the almost purely internalized then, and with an essay on depression in the programme by the comedienne Ruby Wax, Hamlet’s near mental collapse is stressed in that ‘antic disposition’, as the stage is emblazoned with the Roman motto Mens Sana In Corpora Sanis and the programme cover shows a fencing mask completely blacked out. As vital and relevant a theme and human fact as that is, and the appalling disconnection from the world it can cause, that no-one on the healthy ‘outside’ can understand, part of the problem with it being entirely true to Hamlet is that its ghost is not just a projection of Hamlet’s mind, it is seen by others, except in the bedroom scene, and tells Hamlet things of real foul deeds that spur the action. Although you can see that in context of his own ‘prophetic soul’ too, or of how a consciousness at full tilt can grasp how things can work really in the ‘world’, especially in the ‘incestuous’ play of male and female energies that make or mar us all, or perhaps itself becomes the force of corruption and ultimate despair. It is why that ghostly injuction “Taint not thy mind, Hamlet” is so important. It places Hamlet then on the very cusp of a still believing world and a new ‘psychological’ age, that perhaps we still cannot answer.
In that giving of Shakespeare back to the actors though, every one of these performances are strong and some are superb. Robin Soans is utterly convincing as a kind of ‘Yes Minister’ Polonius, a man of his class, brutal to his daughter, a skilful if dull servant of the dangerous court. Charlotte Cornwall’s Gertrude is not given enough scope, but powerful when it comes to the bedroom clinch and tender in her rediscovered or perhaps never really present maternity of her son. Both Laertes and Horatio are strong too, if the Hamlet-Horatio age gap seems too big. But the laurel for originality must go to Greg Hicks, so intentionally cast as Hamlet’s real duelling opponent. He is constantly eerie, nasty and dangerous, a man truly capable of murder, and a kind of slick Danish gangster, in shiny suit and brandishing easy lies. Hicks nearly steals the show though with his brilliant prayer scene soliloquy, I’ve never seen done so well, a man who does not delude himself, faced with the urge to heaven, but finding himself steeped in a crime he cannot expunge. It shines with intelligence and reality and so he must also advance to the poisonous staging of Hamlet’s murder. The only frustration was the lovely, febrile Pippa Nixon’s Ophelia, since her first appearance is wonderful, aching with a passionate and new discovered sexuality, so phallically underscored in the player’s dumb-show, like a character from a Milan Kundera novel. It could have led to dark wonders in her madness, but the dull white wedding dress metaphor and over strident singing in her grief loses subtlety and vulnerability and you suspect it has something to do with the staging and the desire to keep up the fencing metaphor. Yet her interment at the front throughout the last quarter is bleakly moving and also leaves you with a sense of what might have been.
At three and a half hours with a 20 minute interval there have been bloody cuts, and one of the oddest is not allowing Fortinbras on stage to deliver his valediction, but constant originality and freshness compensate, even entertaining oddity, like Claudius’ acceptance of his own execution by poison cup and so many moments where new meanings or interpretations are found in the marvelous play of words. I have no idea why the sprinklers come on in the end, except to break you out of the cloisterphobic sports hall setting, or because they had some, but it was the bracing originality, clarity and accessibility of this Hamlet that got me to my feet. It is a very unusual Hamlet, certainly not for purists, but a very palpable acting hit.
Hamlet is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford until September 28th 2013