Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Opened 5 October, 2005

We first see the two attendant lords tossing a coin together. But this is not Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard's mischievous sidelight on Hamlet, but a production of Shakespeare's tragedy itself, starring Stoppard's son Ed as the prince. (I half-expected the young male actor in the role of the Player Queen to be given the Stoppardian instruction, "Get your skirt on, Alfred.")

It's interesting to compare this, Stephen Unwin's production for English Touring Theatre, with the recent version at the Haymarket in Basingstoke. Where John Adams in Basingstoke opted for a modern-day setting in a garrisoned luxury hotel, Unwin goes for an absolutely straight presentation: a bare black stage, period costumes, right down to Ed Stoppard adopting a classic contemplative posture for the line "Alas, poor Yorick...". Adams turned the Ghost into a series of reanimated corpses, which almost rediscovered the element of fright but grew increasingly nonsensical; as Unwin's Ghost, Patrick Drury is the standard grey figure pacing through mist and with slight reverb on his voice.

It's the Hamlets themselves who sum up the strengths and weaknesses of their respective productions. Jack Laskey at Basingstoke is unsurpassed in my experience as a Hamlet who luminously conveys the sense of his lines whilst utterly neglectful of the music of Shakespeare's verse. He gives us Hamlet in what sounds not just like prose, but like the prose of soaps. Ed Stoppard for ETT takes far fewer risks. His evident understanding of the lines, and his physical language, surpass a relatively limited range of vocal cadences: he occasionally whoops, as on "O, most perNICious WOMan!", and when he suddenly shouts it feels directed rather than a spontaneous outburst. I would have said that these are a young actor's limitations, but I'm surprised to find that, at 31, Stoppard is a year older than his character.

The rest of Unwin's production is likewise solid but unspectacular. If I had not seen the brilliance of which Anita Dobson is capable onstage, I would have no notion of it from her restrained, primly enunciated Gertrude. Michael Cronin is always reliable, but here adds nothing to the standard portrayal of Polonius as an old duffer. Ben Warwick gives a shallow Laertes, Alice Patten an undistinctive Ophelia (still preferable to Miriam Hughes's in Basingstoke, distinguished by her wide-eyed irksomeness). The show does the job: it tells the story lucidly with minimal cuts and keeps the school audiences quiet, or at least whispering very low indeed. It gives us the music; what it does not do is make that music soar.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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