Kenneth Branagh owes me £3.40 – I paid good money to see Dead Again. But he's more than forgiven after creating a magnificently classic Prince Hamlet. Branagh presents the indecisions, vacillations and tergiversations of Hamlet without selling short the bursts of dynamism, the fury and passion. He reclaims the soliloquies as the clear, comprehensible and illuminating passages they should be, rather than the ring of cordoned-off cultural megaliths they've become; in fact, throughout he restores one's faith in the ability of contemporary actors to speak verse without awkward Peter Hall-ese end-stopping.
The greatest strength of the production, which has drawn universal praise, is the dimension of familial and near-familial relationships: the gripping intensity of Hamlet's closet-scene with Gertrude (Jane Lapotaire) and Clifford Rose's compassionate Ghost, the "nunnery" scene with Ophelia (Joanne Pearce), and the leave-taking of Laertes (a rather pastel Richard Bonneville) from his sister and his father Polonius (David Bradley on marvellous form as an arid courtier whose accustomed habitat is a Kafkaesque milieu of ten-drawer filing cabinets). Adrian Noble directs the full text (all four and a half hours of it) with admirable clarity, unafraid to verge on melodrama – indeed, this is a production which reclaims that word from either pejorative or condescending use.
Bob Crowley's designs emphasise the haywire state of Denmark: Polonius's office; a staggering private theatre for the play scene, which becomes the chapel in which Claudius (John Shrapnel at the peak of his powers) prays while Hamlet prowls behind him, hissing in his ear; an expanse of grey tarpaulin which the mad Ophelia (dressed in the clothes her father was wearing when murdered) pulls off to reveal a wilderness of wilted funeral wreaths and a lonely upright piano on which she strums obsessively. (Only the final tableau jars: it's becoming the RSC season for tragic heroes to be reunited with their loved ones in the hereafter as the curtain fails.)
Branagh's Prince, though, is the necessary focus for all this: dominant without being domineering, intelligent without being over-involved, remarkably funny, clearly feigning his madness, and above all gloriously human. Start queuing now for returns from this sell-out; the Branagh backlash stops here.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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