John Simm, John Nettles,Barbara Flynn,Michelle Dockery, Hugh Ross, Colin Tierney
It's been fifteen years since the Crucible last doubled for the Castle of Elsinore, and in that time the tale of the tortured Prince Of Denmark has remained as popular as ever. Rory Kinnear is set to star in the National Theatre's version this autumn, while the Sheffield Crucible has struck gold by casting John Simm in this production by Paul Miller.|
The fact that this was Simm's first attempt at Shakespeare led to somewhat of a sense of occasion at the Crucible on opening night.
It wasn't just Simm who was a familiar TV face, with a cast that includes Barbara Flynn, Michelle Dockery and Bergerac himself, John Nettles. Yet this isn't a dumbed-down version of Shakespeare - with a running time of nearly 3 hours, Hamlet is still a play that demands an audience's concentration.
Simm's Hamlet is one that is likely to divide audiences - beginning as a somewhat petulant version of Harry Enfield's Kevin The Teenager character (he spends his first few minutes on stage simply lying on the floor), he slowly and skillfully portrays Hamlet's tortured mindset. He may not have the magnetism of a David Tennant or the gravitas of an Olivier, but Simm is a different, intriguing Hamlet - bitter, caustic, occasionally cruel and surprisingly funny at times.
In fact, the often overlooked dark humour of Hamlet is brought to the fore in Miller's production. Hugh Ross is quite brilliant as both Polonious and the Gravedigger with the latter's scene being a particular standout, and the 'play within a play' is enlivened by Simm's bawdy, borderline misogynistic, quips to Ophelia.
The stage design is spartan and minimalist, with the lighting having an often dramatic effect, especially in the scenes set outside. This austere set design means that the audience can concentrate on the performances, which are uniformly excellent: Dockery portrays Ophelia's descent into insanity perfectly, while Nettles draws on his years of experience with the RSC to give his Claudius a dastardly, guilt-ridden, edge. Flynn, meanwhile, adds her customary touch of class as Gertrude, the mother and wife who suddenly realises too late that there is indeed something rotten in the state of Denmark.
Yet it's Simm who obviously takes centre-stage. His soliloquies are enunciated perfectly, allowing the audience to enjoy the rhythm and flow of Shakespeare's language. His 'to be or not to be' is a particular highlight, delivered in a tense, wired and sometimes yearning manner. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, he's more effective playing off other cast members - the scenes with Opehlia provide a real frisson, and by the time he's confronting Gertrude, bellowing "where is thy blush" and stamping on a photo of Claudius, the atmosphere is nothing less than electric.
If there is a criticism to be made, it's that the actors often don't make the most of the space of the Crucible stage - often standing stock still or prowling around the stage slowly. It's only during the climatic duel that some energy is injected, with a fine battle between Hamlet and Laertes being extremely well-choreographed.
Yet this does little to detract from what is a very impressive production and a fine Shakesperian debut from Simm. As ever with Hamlet, "the play's the thing", and 400 years on from its creation, it still retains its unique power.