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August 21, 2008

The Craftiest of Madness: The "Sci Fi" Hamlet at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's Hamlet
directed by Gregory Doran
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 24th July- 15th November 2008

The popular orthodoxy, starting with Hazlitt, is that Shakespeare wrote four great tragedies and they are, by extension of the argument, his four greatest plays. They are, of course, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello. But as a lifelong theatre-goer who has seen double figures of productions of all of them I have been led to the disjunctive conclusion that either they are not as good as they are cracked up to be or (Hazlitt's view) that they are very difficult to stage. One way or the other the proportion of disappointment has always been higher than for the comedies and the histories. Perhaps it is the sheer weight of expectation.

And here is a production which has raised expectations to record levels. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Hamlet, directed by Greg Doran, with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Old Hamlet and Claudius, sold out every seat for every performance in the large Courtyard Theatre before the first guard shone his torch across the ramparts of Elsinore in earnest. This is something to do with the "sci fi" connection: for those who don't know Tennant is the current Dr Who and Stewart once commanded the starship Enterprise. But it is also the case that Greg Doran is the RSC members' director of choice.

For once there is not a hint of disappointment. The stage is generally plain, sharing its mirrored background with the current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Effects such as chandeliers for the court and a bed for the bedchamber are simple but effective. Costume is a bit of a mixed bag, but unequivocally modern; Hamlet shoots Polonius instead of stabbing him, Gertrude draws on a cigarette in the privacy of her own bedroom and the final duel is fought in modern fencing kit. Iím not sure what is left out from the hugely long First Quarto version, but itís nothing I missed or remembered and the production is well over three hours on stage without ever dragging.

At the core of this hugely successful production is the brilliance of Tennant who speaks every word clearly and as if he's just thought of it. His Hamlet is an immensely unhappy young man who is also capable of a bitter joy at his own wit, his own eccentricity and, increasingly, at his own capacity for violence. At the end of the performance he was cheered by young and old alike, though I have mixed feelings about seeing three hundred fans gathered round a stage door in Stratford.

Our very English tradition here is that actors and audience both slip off quietly to the Dirty Duck once formalities have been completed - though I'm sure we'll get back to this. But I must insist that, contrary to some allegations, Stewart and Tennant cannot be thought of as imported stars: Stewart calls Stratford home and Tennant had his first big parts in Stratford. I especially remember him as an excellent Antipholus of Syracuse in the 2000 production of The Comedy of Errors.

The rest of the cast are very good. As always, Stewart is excellent, increasingly immobile, impotent and appalled as events and his nephew-stepson spiral out of control. Penny Downie as Gertrude suggests the sort of upper class hostess whose elegant exterior clothes a torn soul. Oliver Ford Davies is wonderfully funny and pompous as Polonius, the sort of old geezer who talks a lot of sense but makes it sound like nonsense. If anyone struggles it is Mariah Gale as Ophelia: her "real" madness looks a lot more feigned than Hamlet's more ambiguous version.

All in all this is performance to treasure and to restore the faith. RSC tickets will be changing hands as never before on ebay, despite sternly emailed warnings from the Company that this is not an acceptable practice.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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