Peter De Jersey
Oliver Ford Davies
No doubt bedded-in and deepened since it opened in Stratford three weeks ago, Greg Doran’s new production of Hamlet is a knock-out. We all know this is a great play but it has rarely been as exciting, speedy and totally enthralling as this.
Robert Jones’s designs hint at opulence, using the simplest of means to great effect. Shafts of torchlight ricochet off mirrored surfaces to create a chiaroscuro opening, plunging us straight into an atmospheric world of frightening darkness. Also bouncing off the walls is David Tennant’s tremendous Hamlet – agile, charismatic, intellectual, handsome, highly-strung and dangerous.
He’s very funny too. This extraordinary combination of qualities makes for an edgy and ambiguous interpretation. We don’t know quite where we are with him, what’s real and what’s fake; he can fire off in any direction at any moment. No heavyweight, Tennant’s Hamlet is as buoyant as a cork floating on water. It’s a fascinating and fresh characterisation, superbly delivered.
Patrick Stewart gives a performance of great subtlety as Claudius. An apparently decent, upright man, he keeps us waiting long into the play before letting us glimpse his guilt. Until then, it could all be in Hamlet’s head. When he finally confesses, we see a seething conscience beneath the urbane surface. Even then, he seems to follow a politic path rather than one of downright evil – this is a king who will use diplomacy before force in public life, keeping fratricide a strictly private affair.
Penny Downie is an attractive and vulnerable Gertrude, a victim of the unreason that brings everything clattering down around her. Oliver Ford-Davies is wonderfully dotty as Polonius and Mariah Gale a forlorn and moving Ophelia, grasping a huge bunch of wild flowers gathered at the expense of stung and scratched flesh.
This is in fact an almost faultless cast: a comical and totally believable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sam Alexander and Tom Davey), an Osric with Tony Blair grin (Ryan Gage), genuinely funny gravediggers (the excellent Mark Hadfield ably assisted by Sam Alexander again) and a grotesque band of players led by John Woodvine. Peter de Jersey is a touching Horatio, fiercely loyal to his prince, and Edward Bennett, slightly more believable in his early scenes than in the vengeful climax, is a solid Laertes.
Fortinbras and the impending Norwegian invasion is played down but there’s no lack of action throughout the play. A chase of almost expressionistic comedy accompanies the search for Polonius’ body, while the duel scene zips by in a whirl of activity. Both Gertrude and Claudius’s deaths are unexpectedly self-induced.
Guns, swords, suits, t-shirts and armour all mingle in a world that is both eclectic and coherent. What makes Doran’s production so accessible is not the casting of popular actors (who have no problem demonstrating their classical credentials), but a rigorous assault on the text and a flood of fresh ideas that avoids gimmickry. There’s textual reshaping here and there, but it’s the vitality of the approach that generates such familiar yet original flavour.
Sold out in Stratford, this will be a hot ticket for its London run too. It’s worth joining a long queue to see it.
Read the musicOMH review of Love’s Labour’s Lost, starring David Tennant, here.