Birmingham Rep
Opened 22 September, 1998

The set design is credited to Ruari Murchison, but really it is Tim Mitchell's lighting which defines the space, with its walls, curtains and castellations of white light. The guards on the ramparts in the first scene, punningly, duck under one of Mitchell's beams as they enter; the ghost vanishes at cock-crow behind a sheet of light. As order in the Danish court breaks down, so does the seeming solidity of these effects, as Claudius and various courtiers walk through what are apparently light-walls into and out of scenes. It may be a deliberate decision on director Bill Alexander's part, but it looks as if an idea has rather been let slip than developed.

So much of Alexander's production is so nearly great, but stops short at merely very good indeed. Richard McCabe's shadow has for some time fallen before him across the role of Prince Hamlet: McCabe is particularly distinguished at dealing with complexity both of language and emotion, at portraying them clearly and lucidly without sacrificing any of the accompanying intensity. This Hamlet's antic disposition is not overacted when the Prince toys with those around him, he is quietly mordant for his own private enjoyment only; similarly, when his distraction grows more genuine, there is no sign of grand Guignol insanity to him. However, there is correspondingly little sign that this Hamlet might ever have had an active, impetuous side to his nature, which throws into imbalance the central dramatic tension between impulse and inaction.

Both facially and in his repertoire of gestures, Gerard Murphy's Claudius is the kind of bruiser who keeps subtly reminding you not to get on the wrong side of him not openly coarse (until desperation sets in in the later acts), but with a constant undertow of menace. Jack Klaff enjoys Polonius's greatest excesses "Your son is mad" and the encounters around the players but reins himself in elsewhere. Rakie Ayola's Ophelia is girlish and immature from the start, degenerating into the shrill, whirling kind of madness which McCabe's prince eschews.

Alexander excises Fortinbras and the war against the Norwegians altogether, and with additional nips and tucks brings the play in at three and a half hours. Although sparks ultimately fail to fly in either area, both the internal story of Hamlet's vacillation and the external tale of the rottenness in the state of Denmark are told admirably.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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