I remember a Dave Allen sketch from my childhood in which the comedian, as Hamlet, remarked, "Alas, poor Yorick...", then began drinking a glass of water whilst apparently ventriloquising with the skull: "To ghee, or not to ghee...". This memory returned during Steven Pimlott's RSC Hamlet in Stratford earlier this year, when Samuel West's prince and the Second Gravedigger began practising rugby passes with the skull. I'm bizarrely disappointed that that moment has been cut from the play's transfer to the Barbican, as it is one of the gimmicky touches which proved audaciously gratuitous rather than pretending to offer insight, like Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern giggling helplessly at Polonius' "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" remarks because before the chamberlain's arrival the younger men had been spliffing up together.
Pimlott's modern-dress production is strong on the politics of Elsinore, with Alan David's Polonius as a tetchy, self-regarding mandarin, members of the court wearing laminated name-tags, and Larry Lamb's Claudius a cold, presidential monarch so calculating that in the final duel he deliberately switches the foils so that Laertes realises he too is to be dispatched. But it lets itself down by failing to generate the ferment of revenge which needs to be firmly in the foreground.
West is, as I have said before, blessed with the gift of making one fall a little in love with whatever character he plays; the phrase "boyish charm" may follow him well into middle age. His prince is consistently appealing and lucid, although the latter is a mixed blessing in this role: with his black hooded top and his morbid toying with an automatic pistol, he seems more often to be going through a difficult but understandable late adolescence than to be putting on an antic disposition, still less to acquire an edge of genuine madness at various points.
Kerry Condon has the makings of a fine, waif-like Ophelia, but rather overdoes the sing-song vocal cadences and the metrical stresses, perhaps because she is labouring to suppress her natural Irish accent (given that David's Polonius is rollingly Welsh). Lamb's Claudius (despite his thoughtful performance), Marty Cruickshank's Gertrude and especially Ben Meyjes' Laertes never really come into focus as individuals with their own motivations and dramatic journeys to make.
And then there are those gimmicks: the gratingly avant-fringey players' dumbshow, the raising of the house lights so that everyone on stage regards the audience on the "hold a mirror up to nature" line, the fireworks to accompany the offstage wassail of this distinctly un-wassailing Claudius. All the dots are present, but not all are joined up, or necessarily joined in the right order. This ends up being Hamlet with the Prince – and a magnetic one at that – but, like Alison Chitty's bare-box design, with little solidity around him.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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