Allegedly revelatory young Hamlets are becoming quite the thing. In a couple of weeks, English Touring Theatre unveil Ed Stoppard's reading of the Dane; last year, one of London's theatrical landmarks was Trevor Nunn's Old Vic production with Ben Whishaw. In that version, the Second Gravedigger was played by Jack Laskey, who now tackles the Prince in John Adams' first show as director since taking the artistic helm at Basingstoke.
Laskey is impressive in many ways, but not in enough. I don't think I have ever seen a Hamlet who so luminously conveys the sense of his lines whilst so utterly neglectful of finding the music of Shakespeare's verse. He gives us Hamlet in what sounds not just like prose, but like the prose of soaps. To an extent this chimes with one of Adams' aims: to convey a sensation as contemporary as the play would have seemed to its original audience. Hence not just modern dress and a set (designed by Janet Bird) representing the lobby of a militarily garrisoned luxury hotel, but a script edited to run comfortably under three hours and even a number of archaisms discreetly rewritten: no school audiences will snigger in Act V here, as Claudius confides that he has prepared a poisoned chalice "for the purpose" rather than "for the nonce".
As ever, some touches work and others don't. The portrayal of the Ghost is a mixed bag: it may or may not be a clever idea to have the spirit of Hamlet's father reanimate convenient corpses, but what sense does it make for Gertrude not to see a physically present zombie-Polonius who goes so far as to kiss her on the lips? Paul Greenwood is a strong Polonius (when alive), self-regarding rather than doddering; Joseph Marcell's Claudius is not only a fine characterisation – a matter-of-factly callous politician whose posters adorn the hotel walls – but gives Laskey an object lesson in the sonorities of the verse. Miriam Hughes's Ophelia only confirms my opinion that the actress may not be regularly making the characters she plays annoyingly callow out of deliberate choice, but simply because that's all she can manage. The final blackout comes as young Fortinbras celebrates his succession by drinking from that chalice. What a nonce.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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