John Retallack has acquired a reputation for clear, vibrant stagings of classic plays – at first from the European repertoire with the Actors Touring Company which he founded, more recently concentrating on Shakespeare as artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company. Hamlet (staged in temporary premises at the Newman Rooms, as Oxford Playhouse joins the Bush, the Royal Court and the bombed-out Manchester Royal Exchange in undergoing refurbishment work) is Retallack's tenth Shakespeare for the OSC, but is less than an unqualified success.
Retallack and co-director Karl James have chosen a predominantly young company, with the intention perhaps of combating the prejudice which holds the play to be so monumental that actors need considerable experience before approaching even a supporting role. Unfortunately, they give inadvertent ammunition to such a view. Competence abounds, but distinction is thin on the ground: Daniel Isaacs simply goes through the motions as Laertes, and the early glimmerings of a self-possessed Ophelia in Emma Cunniffe's performance evaporate until, in her final scenes of madness, Cunniffe has adopted a thousand-yard stare. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a pair of vacuous and annoying upper-class twits; one wants to cheer at the news that they are going to their deaths, only to find Timothy Clarke (Rosencrantz) popping up again in even more maddeningly twerpsome guise as Osric.
Of the older actors, William Russell's Claudius is a hawkish rather than a boorish villain, engaging in grim self-mockery during the prayer scene, and Colin George's Polonius is unusually on-the-ball, his verbosity being mere digressions rather than the ramblings of a dotard. However, they are counterbalanced not only by the journeyman performances around them, but by a chronic want of atmosphere in the production. Once again, Retallack and James's vision backfires: where the aim of this modern-dress production is to locate Hamlet as a contemporary young man questioning but imprisoned by his royal heritage (manifested in a huge roll of honour covering the entire floorcloth) and duty, the smart suits and businesslike air mostly suggest the image of ordinariness which surrounds today's Scandinavian monarchies.
As the prince, Ian Pepperell seems astoundingly young – nearer 13 than 30 – and correspondingly callow. His early soliloquies are delivered in slow, almost wailing adolescent emotion, and although he gives a refreshingly unfussy reading of his lines in several of the "antic disposition" scenes, he is handicapped throughout by a compulsion to gesture largely but vaguely, which almost deserves Islamic-style retribution.
The few textual cuts have been made primarily to excise archaisms and keep the focus in the royal court rather than Denmark as a whole – and three and a half hours of such an undistinguished, self-defeating production is a lot to take. True, the narrative is conveyed without complications, but the quality achieved is not clarity so much as the more ambiguous one of plainness.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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