On the press night, Philip Prowse's production of Hamlet went up absolutely on time, unfortunately for the third or so of the audience who had not yet made it to their seats – but who needs the opening dialogue on the battlements, after all? In fact, running briskly throughout and clocking in at under three hours all told, this Hamlet boasts fewer delays than my rail journey on the way to see it. It is, however, equally uneventful theatrically.
Prowse has gone for broad clarity of mood rather than the moment-to-moment linguistic variety: we understand in general terms what any given character is feeling, but the turns of rhetorical phrase canter away at such a clip that we may miss many of them. Only Robert Gwilym as Claudius (after the first court scene in which neither the character nor the actor seems especially interested in his lines) consistently guides us through every gradation of his thoughts and feelings.
Cal MacAninch's Hamlet is at once utterly introverted and a stranger to himself: not only does he roam frantically about both the court and the "stage" during the players' presentation, oblivious to the fact that he is causing more consternation than even he intended, but earlier he proves so irritated by the Ghost's subterranean chant of "Swear" that he tries to stamp the spirit voice into silence. His closet scene with Gertrude is devoid of quasi-incestuous tension until what can only be described as a parting snog; this comes out of the blue as far as our perceptions of both characters are concerned – for Hamlet it seems a sudden spasm of genuine madness, for the hitherto entirely proper and un-sirenly Gertrude (Ann Mitchell) simply unthinkable.
Tristram Wymark's Laertes is his father's son, a self-important pain; Ophelia (Sophie Ward) seems more mature than her brother, but always somewhat overwrought, and ends spitting every line venomously in her mad scenes. At times Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem closer to their Stoppardian than their Shakespearean incarnations.
Prowse's design is characteristically brash and by turns impressive – as vast slabs of supposed masonry fly in and out – unfortunate – as said slabs wobble when actors edge out through the slim gaps between them – and mystifying – why are a crowd of minor courtiers dressed in clown and devil masks in the final duel scene? Why does the clay-faced Gravedigger amble through the opening court episode, whistling a dirge? Presumably Prowse means to relocate Hamlet within the genre of Elizabethan/Jacobean revenge tragedies, with their frequent forays into the realms of the grotesque; in fact he succeeds only in causing head-scratching distraction. There are to be at least two other major Hamlets this autumn, at Greenwich and Norwich, with Alex Jennings rounding things off for the RSC next May; this production is likely to find itself eclipsed in coming weeks.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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