Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Opened 22 September, 2010

A couple of years after the last big Battle of the Hamlets, which saw Jude Law pitted against David Tennant in their respective portrayals of the melancholy Dane, we have a fresh tussle. Admired stage actor Roy Kinnear is about to open in the role at the National Theatre, but first out of the traps is John Simm in Sheffield. Simm, best known as Sam Tyler in Life On Mars and as Dr Who’s arch-foe the Master, may suffer the same sniffiness as Tennant did from those ignorant of his stage record. He proves here that he has the emotional range, intellectual acuity and sensitivity to the dynamics of the role in a performance that is more than halfway to excellence.

Alas, it will never get there as long as he persists in his unaccountable use of an artificial, over-articulated Actorly Voice. Clarity is one thing (and in the Crucible Simm is playing to nearly 1000 seats on three sides), but an antique over-crispness is distracting in its unnaturalness. Simm scarcely uses the most common vowel sound in spoken English, the schwa, in three and half hours; even unemphasised usages of words such as “to” and “and” are given their full formal vowel reading. It is entirely out of harmony with a modern-dress production like Paul Miller’s.

Perhaps Simm is trying to keep up with John Nettles, who all but sings his parts of Claudius and the ghost. Indeed, of the principal performers only Hugh Ross as Polonius, Barbara Flynn as Gertrude and Michelle Dockery as Ophelia make their lines sound like speech rather than oratory. Dockery in particular chooses an unusually muted portrayal, which at times looks like a sketch for the performance as Masha in Three Sisters which she must surely, and brilliantly, give some time soon.  This is a young woman as thoughtful as Hamlet, and whose madness proves so very affecting because we see her at her most alive on, as we know, the brink of death.

In terms of narrative drive and fluency, Miller’s production (which uses the scenic structure, though not the mangled text, of the First Quarto edition of the play) does its job. But I find it utterly perplexing that, professing as he does to have tried to treat it as if it were a new play, he has allowed or even encouraged so much old-fashioned stiltedness.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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