Hamlet, Novello, 3rd January 2009.
There must have been a touch of magic or hocus-pocus about this production, it was almost inhumanly good. Tennant leant a supernatural energy to a uniformly superlative cast. Hats (without rabbits) off to Greg Doran for coaxing such fine performances from such a talented group of actors. January 3rd was Tennant’s first performance in London, his return to the stage after back surgery before Christmas. When we bought our tickets on the morning, the RSC were still advertising Ed Bennett as Hamlet, and just before the house lights went down, the Producer announced Tennant’s return, to wild applause. After an initial tug of the heartstrings that Bennett had been effectively demoted to Laertes, the sheer brilliance of the production blew away any residual hard feelings. Bennett was a measured and intelligent Laertes, and it is fair to say that he seemed so comfortable in that role that it was hard to imagine him as Hamlet.
Tennant, however, took that role and made it his own in a way that no understudy, however talented, could hope to emulate. His Hamlet was all nervous energy and pent-up grief, constantly teetering on the edge of mental breakdown. He has a gift uncommon amongst Shakespearean actors, especially in the RSC, of making the words fresh. Often with such well-known plays, you get the feeling that the audience are either mouthing along, or zoned out ready to tune back in when they hear ‘to be or not be’. With Tennant’s mercurial, twitchy Prince, the idea that he did not know what he was going to say next was beautifully captured, and he kept almost four hours of Shakespeare tripping along at a speed that made the evening fly by.
The simple mirrored set (backdrop and floor were both reflective) emphasised the dualities in the play, and the turmoil of Hamlet’s desires for inner peace and for revenge. His schizophrenic manias and intense calms gave his performance dramatic weight, and he played superbly off Patrick Stewart’s grave, disdainful and thoroughly unpleasant Claudius and Penny Downie’s fraught and highly-strung Gertrude. The bedroom scene was particularly striking, with Hamlet alternating between a desperate little boy and a manic, sexual, violent young man on the edge of madness. The death of Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) was spectacularly simple: a single gunshot and a myriad of cracks appeared across the mirrored set. How’d they do that? Magic.
Ford Davies as Polonius was fantastic – a dangerously influential windbag whose own children were impatiently tolerant of his long-windedness. He was also very comic, and indeed Doran had brought the comedy out of the whole play. There were several laugh-out-loud moments, not what one expects from such a great tragedy. In fact, the humour was a stroke of genius, as it contrasted so strongly with the waste of life at the end, and it was perfectly judged to avoid farce. Sam Alexander and Tom Davey (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively) were a superb double act, their comic potential enhanced by the stark difference in their heights – a real Little’n’Large pairing. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was, again, beautifully, judged. She wrung every drop from an underwritten part, and given that the vast majority of her character’s development takes place off stage (sane in one scene, totally barmy by her next entrance) she brought a depth that the role often lacks, She also played madness well – this was one Ophelia that could not be written off a silly love-struck or grief-stricken girl – you felt as though she had the troubles of the world on her shoulders and after a short time the weight was too much to bear and she broke. The relationship between Bennett’s Laertes and Gale’s Ophelia was also a nice touch, and gave a depth to his murderous grief and rage.
I actually cannot fault this production. It was clear that the whole cast were delighted to have Tennant back – there was a feeling of settling back into a more familiar groove, but without any of the dullness or lack of energy that that suggests. Tennant’s wild energy and wit kept the whole cast on their toes, and there must have been magic in the air to make four hours fly by so fast. If Doran keeps conjuring performances like this, tickets will sell out faster than you can say “rabbits”.