Hamlet by William Shakespeare, RSC, Courtyard Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon

  August 2008  
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David Tennant's speedy final entrance to receive the applause of his Stratford audience was itself a moment of pure theatre. Following three and a half hours of mesmeric acting, Tennant was greeted by his own ‘distracted multitude' of appreciative theatregoers, many rising spontaneously to their feet. This was not hype. This was not mass adulation for a TV sci-fi star. This was genuine, heartfelt appreciation for an evening of outstanding courage, merit and skill. David Tennant has donned the mantle of the Prince of Denmark and wears it proudly as his own. His face, obviously overwhelmed by the intense delight of his reception, beamed with the boyish charm with which he had imbued Hamlet's tortured personality.

To have succeeded in such a demanding role is significant enough. To have done so when surrounded by a rich tapestry of supporting actors is even more commendable. And tapestry is, I am sure, the best way to describe the artistic grandeur of this memorable production. The director Gregory Doran has united similarly great actors, like Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie and the wonderful Oliver Ford Davies, who conjure the world of Elsinore with incomparable style and panache. These are real emotions being felt by real people. Doran's stewardship of this, the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies, secures him a worthy place in the history of British theatre.

The production is enhanced by the sumptuous royal grandeur evoked by the designs of Robert Jones. The Courtyard stage is a black mass of mirror-like surfaces. Enormous panels pivot at the rear of the stage, offering secret entrances and exits for spy and spectre alike. The Castle at Elsinore is made of fragile glass; the slightest pressure, the slightest shift in the political landscape and this brittle, inflexible regime will shatter. Let alone the gunshot of a manic prince.

Tim Mitchell's lighting design makes full use of the reflective surfaces. In the play's opening moments, when Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo meet on the battlements, handheld torchlight bounces around the auditorium, spreading its eerie, smoky glow and masking the arrival of the Ghost of Hamlet's father. When Hamlet snatches a Player's make-up prop, so holding a literal ‘mirror up to nature', shafts of light again illuminate the faces of the audience, literally and metaphorically mirroring the ghostly scene. Finally, the crystal chandeliers which hang majestically over Elsinore signify the fragility of glass and mirror and light. Hamlet has returned to this fragile, translucent world. His aim, to re-present himself as dark and bleak, a black hole of nothingness, within which his enemies are incapable of observing the truth of his revenge-seeking soul.

As I have said, David Tennant is astonishing as Hamlet. Tennant's gangly youthful prince, apparently unfit to accept the responsibility of government, careers around his ancestral home with all the arrogance of wealth and misplaced fervour. The revelation of his father's murder has a profound and refreshingly clear effect on Hamlet. Tennant shifts from ennui-wearied prince to maddened, grieving son by adopting his ‘antic disposition' with an oath in blood and a ruffling of his hair. From this moment forth, Hamlet's feigned madness permits him to test and try his enemy and uncle, Claudius.

The enmity between the pair is heightened by the performance of Patrick Stewart, who openly views his nephew with suspicion. Stewart's Claudius is unmoved by any ‘disposition', apparently fully aware that Hamlet unbelievably knows the truth. When forced to watch enough of ‘The Mousetrap' to see his own crimes staged before his eyes, Claudius does not storm out in rage, but slowly, deliberately stands over his nephew and knowingly shakes his head in disgust and dismay. Hamlet, who lies nonchalantly on the ground with Ophelia, is resplendent in his dinner-jacket and black tie, though barefooted in his supposed absent-mindedness. This moment, this confrontation between murderer and revenger, justifies the gradual spiral into deathly inevitability which is so sympathetically staged at the end of Hamlet.

Doran's choice of interval break is likewise a revelation, leaving the play mid-scene as Hamlet raises his dagger to strike the kneeling, praying Claudius. This is high drama at its peak, and worthy of the contemporary twenty-first-century feel to the piece. As the audience spill out to the bar, the effect of this particularly brave staging is palpable. It is like we are seeing Hamlet for the very first time, like that first audience all those years ago. Excitement, wonder, trepidation, and a real desire to return to the action.

So, a great Hamlet and a great Claudius. Penny Downie adds grace and style to Gertrude, conjuring a queen with an uncanny resemblance to Princess Diana, as she would be now that is. Oliver Ford Davies's Polonius, a conniving and forgetful bumbler who fawns his way in and out of social situations, is a sure-fire favourite, as is John Woodvine's majestic Player King. Horatio, played with simple integrity by Peter de Jersey, is a believable friend and ally for Hamlet, whilst Edward Bennett's Laertes is refreshingly bold and arrogant. Usually the part of a devastatingly handsome juvenile lead (and often Hamlet's understudy in a production), Laertes as played by Bennett is every inch his father Polonius's son. You can see the genes of precise self-aggrandizement at play as Laertes escapes Elsinore with his luggage and well-stored rapiers, only to return to the death and destruction of his own unfortunate family.

If the queue for returns (an unusual enough sight at the Courtyard) is anything to go by, this is going to be a particularly lucrative venture by the RSC. If, as I hope, it travels south to London later in the year, then the capital is in for a treat. Fresh. Innovative. Clear. Vital. A Hamlet which sets the standard for future productions. A touchstone which glistens with its own golden reflective glow. A memorable -- no, rather, unforgettable -- evening's entertainment in its purest sense.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008