After a highly successful run in Stratford over the summer, the RSC now bring their latest productions of Shakespeare’s great tragedies to London. And they begin with the greatest – Hamlet, the simple story of a procrastinating Danish prince, trying to avenge his uncle’s death at his father’s hand while (possibly) feigning madness.
The title role is played by Toby Stephens, perhaps still best known for being Maggie Smith’s son, but also by fans of theatre for his award winning Coriolanus, and by fans of film for playing the latest Bond villain. Stephens, and indeed the cast as a whole, are fully aware of the magnitude of the task they are taking on. A production of Hamlet is not merely a production of Hamlet, but inevitably bears the burden of hundreds of years of critical interpretation and adulation, as well as a performance history featuring many of the great actors of the past: Gielgud, Olivier, even Kenneth Branagh.
Modern productions have often dealt with this fact by finding a gimmick, a way of repositioning the action of the play to give it more resonance with a modern audience. This is not a criticism of such performances: Sam West played Hamlet a few years ago in a production which made use of Second World War imagery and sparse, modernist sets, and the result was breathtaking.
Yet the current production, directed by Michael Boyd, goes some way toward returning the play to its Sixteenth Century roots. The costumes are all drawn from this era, and the flexible set, a semi-circle of black wooden panels, echoes the simplicity of theatres in Shakespeare’s time.
Stephens’ Hamlet is volatile, almost histrionic, an emotionally fraught poseur who often delivers his soliloquies through tears, or angry snarls. I was initially unsure of this interpretation of the role; while valid as a version of the character, it puts considerable strain on the play as a whole, in terms of our sympathy for the prince and the way in which other characters respond to him. Stephens, though, got stronger and stronger as the play went on, and by the time he proclaimed ‘The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’, there was no doubting the quality of his performance.
The other performance of particular note was that of Greg Hicks. Hicks is exclusively a stage actor, and will soon be playing Macbeth as part of the same season of tragedies; here he depicts the player king, the gravedigger and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. His portrayal of the ghost was the aspect of the production which I think will linger longest in my mind; through Hicks’ superb physical acting, the ghost became a contorted, tortured figure, dragging after him a huge sword, who resembled a gargoyle. Thanks to Hicks’ extraordinary performance, the grotesque portrayal retained grace and pathos. His Macbeth will surely be well worth seeing.
The acting was generally strong, as is to be expected from the RSC, with the inexperienced Meg Fraser turning in a fine performance as Ophelia, surely one of the hardest stage roles to play convincingly. The direction was intelligent without becoming ostentatious, both in its subtleties – Hamlet and Laertes’ body language identical in their cruel treatment of Ophelia – and the more obvious, as in the impressively choreographed swordfight at the play’s end.
With the many thousands of productions of the play which there have been, each performance needs to justify its own existence, to prove that it has something to add to the pantheon of great versions of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. This fine production succeeds in doing so.