Perhaps the initial joke in this much-hyped R.S.C. production of Hamlet is that the first thing you see on stage is yourself. There you are, reflected – along with the rest of the audience – in huge, 20-foot mirror-surfaced doors that form the backdrop to the entire production. This impressionistic image has more in common with the Folies-Bergère of Manet’s famous canvas than the plywood reconstructions of classic architecture that normally throw shadows upon the R.S.C. stage. The originality indicated by this visual statement is no false promise, for this is a ceaselessly inventive production, one that leaves all betrayal of hope within the confines of the text.
The production takes place in a contemporary time frame. The opening scene is dissected by carefully choreographed torch beams that bounce off the polished black marble tiles of the stage, illuminating the pitch-black auditorium as if a World War II suburban blitz was expected but delayed. The scene is furtively inhabited by barely visible soldiers who search urgently for an invisible foe.
If the wars of the last century set the scene on the battlements, it is the grand balls of the early 1900s that are invoked in scene two. Extravagant chandeliers appear from the heavens, not sparkling with halogen, but glowing as if powered by coal gas, and growing ever dimmer and more distant in the reflected fog of the huge, luminescent backdrop. A hiccup of imagination and one is gazing upon a vast Victorian ballroom where stands Hamlet, on the very cusp of the thrust stage, isolated by grief, while his mother and murderous uncle hold court.
So which Hamlet will the good doctor deliver to us? Will it be the Oedipal Hamlet? Or the almost catatonic, mentally deranged Hamlet? What David Tennant gives us, as it turns out, is Hamlet as the joker man, a shape-shifting dynamo of wild mood swings who catapults around the stage, bouncing on his mother’s bed like a hyperactive child – a Hamlet badly in need of some lithium. This is a Hamlet with a quicksilver wit and, for all his verbal gymnastics, mimicry, and cornucopia of voices (Kenneth Williams being a brief but memorable instance), a Hamlet still capable of compassion; angst-riven yet wistful, but compelling when soliloquizing. The performance is a tour-de-force of dramatic might that never stops serving the verse. This Hamlet is simply better experienced than read about.
‘Ah, but what of the tragedy?’ I hear you enquire. It is undoubtedly leavened by Tennant's multi-faceted performance, but it is arguable that the line betwixt comedy and tragedy is even finer than the gossamer wisp that separates love and hate.
However, there is more to this play than its eponymous Danish prince, and there are far more jokers in director Gregory Doran’s pack than he. Oliver Ford Davis’s Polonius, for one, is nothing but comic genius, at times playing Tweedle Dum to Hamlet’s Tweddle Dee, the mirrored backdrop adding a enantiomorphic dimension to their relationship, till the deadly boudoir shot ends both the reality and the reflection, the latter replaced by a fractured web of cracks and we, the audience – like the main characters – remaining indelibly flawed for the remainder of the play.
If one’s initial impression of the theatre has something of Manet about it, then the dumb show has something of Velazquez’s "Las Meninas", with its parade of freakish grotesques. The huge mirror silently reflects reality, as those reflected, in turn, silently mirror the reality of the court of Denmark. Claudius’s quiet indignation as the clown produces a wildly swinging Slinky as an outrageous genital representation is, for me, the only time his ‘subtle’, ‘understated’, ‘restrained’ performance is not overshadowed by the rest of the cast.
Let us not forget this is a regicidal fratricidal assassin who now sleeps with his dead brother's wife. Is it too much for him to indulge in some emotional projection? Patrick Stewart plays Claudius with the stoic reserve of a sarcophagus: when Penny Dowie’s Gertrude collapses after sipping from the poisoned goblet, and he adds uxoricide to his ‘cide’ collection, he dashes to her side with the conviction of a stranger hesitantly helping a felled pensioner on a frosty morning. Whilst Stewart’s amplified Ghost fills the auditorium with basso profundo, Claudius’s naked voice was at times barely audible fifteen rows from the stage, which, for an actor who may lay claim to being the preeminent Shakespearean thespian of his generation, leads me to acknowledge that he may have been under the weather on the night under review.
There is precious little else to chide. All the other performances contribute to the sheer energy and entertainment that this production delivers in spades. The vomitory entrances are brilliantly used; sound effects from behind the audience imbue the production with an intimate and involving texture. The auditorium is cavernous in reflection, yet reductively intimate in reality.
There are aspects of this production that are in the realm of critical subjectivity: is the relocation of the ‘To Be’ soliloquy a mistake? Is the intermission half way through a scene crass or tension-building? And what is lost by cutting Fortinbras’s final speech? Since the seats in the Courtyard make having a chiropractor on speed-dial a necessity for any play of more than three hours I, for one, found the changes and omissions perfectly suitable for this production;t since a Hamlet uncut would clock in at over five hours, it seems nothing more than directorial prudence to give this malleable tragedy a bespoke alignment.
To sum up: the current Dr Who playing Hamlet is not unlike snail porridge. To explain: this legendary, gastronomic delight from the Fat Duck in Bray (possibly the most feted restaurant in all England) is an incongruous mixture when described using the pre-existing constraints of language and expectation, a combination that conjures up disgust and despair in equal measure. Yet, by the consensus of all who can afford to taste it, it is simply wonderful. If you doubt the validity of this torturous analogy, try getting a ticket for the London run of this Hamlet from anywhere except eBay. As the Dane might muse, at £500 a pair there is nothing cheap or expensive, but paying makes it so.