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Hamlet
The Royal National Theatre, London


Dolan Cummings

Hamlet is a man with just one item on his 'to do' list. Kill Claudius.

But you know how it is. That niggling little piece of business to be taken care of looms larger and larger in the imagination until your anxiety isn't really about that at all. You start asking yourself hard questions. 'What is a man/If his chief good and market of his time/Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.' And then before long, 'To be, or not to be: that is the question...'

Hamlet ceases to be at the end of the play, but his problem lives on in the human condition. The challenge for any production is to do justice to Shakespeare's text by keeping it real, as they say. A bad actor could easily ruin the play by reading the lines rather than living them. Simon Russell Beale is not a bad actor, and though he lingered a little on 'To be or not to be' when I saw the production, his overall performance was such that I forgot he was there for most of the play.

Like much of Shakespeare, Hamlet is full of cliches that weren't cliches until Shakespeare coined them. The joy of Shakespeare done well is seeing the cliches suddenly make sense, like mysterious objects turned the right way up to become scientific implements. 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be' turns out to be as pompous in origin as it is in repetition, but it is superceded in the same speech by the brilliant 'to thine own self be true', a piece of advice that would have been better directed at Hamlet himself than at the relatively carefree Laertes.

Not that Hamlet would have been capable of taking such advice. Here is a man haunted by cliches, and incapable of detecting his own voice amid the hubbub. Having dispensed with Simon Russell Beale then, our man must also do away with Hamlet himself, leaving us with screeching doubts and angst-filled lines swirling about the stage in search of human form. Nobody ever said Hamlet was an easy role.

This production omits Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who goes to war 'even for an eggshell' leaving Hamlet feeling inadequate on account of his own inaction. If the 'delicate and tender' Fortinbras was always a dubious role model though, contemporary audiences are even less likely to see invading Poland as a sign of good character. In any case, Simon Russell Beale generates all the self-loathing he needs by observing an actor's 'dream of passion' over the fictional Hecuba. This emphasises that it is Hamlet's lack of feeling as much as his lack of action that makes him guilty. It is a problem that is as contemporary as it is timeless and which bears endless investigation.

There are distractions. The framing of the play, with the actors emerging from and returning to boxes around the edge of the stage seemed an unnecessary reminder of the play's theme. The set was much admired by my companions who know about that sort of thing, but for me, a bunch of luggage strewn across the stage, even with an impressively adaptable lighting rig, was neither more nor less effective than nothing at all. Finally there is always a tendency among audiences to enjoy Shakespeare too much. Polonius isn't that funny. The sense that the audience is also playing a role can be overbearing, but that's theatre for you. And life.

27 February - 3 March Theatre Royal, Plymouth T+44 (0)1752 267222
6 - 10 March
Theatre Royal, Bath T +44 (0)1225 448844
13 - 17 March His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen T +44 (0)1224 641122
Then touring internationally, dates to be announced.


 

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