Hoards of expectant theatre goers have thronged the streets of Stratford upon Avon for the last couple of weeks, attending the sold out run of this season’s Hamlet, starring none other than the current Dr. Who—David Tennant. Another sci-fi star who is no stranger to the Shakespearean stage—Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart—draws many to the theatre with his masterful performance of both Claudius and the ghost of Old Hamlet, portraying both murderer and murdered. With such a high profile stars taking on the demanding mantle of Hamlet, speculation on both interpretation and performance is rife.
A dramatic and eerie opening to the play unassumingly drags the audience into darkness, with immediate tension felt by the patrolling guards. Horatio (Peter de Jersey) gives an engaging and troubled performance, greatly contributing to the initially unsettled environment. The musical score by Paul Englishby is a lively mixture of ceremony and atmosphere, accompanying and encouraging much of the intense pace of the action on stage.
The royal family arrives with a rousing entrance, so much so that Tennant’s entry at this point goes nearly unnoticed. He is almost unrecognisable as he stands sombrely at the edge of the stage in a dinner jacket, his hair slicked to the side.
Claudius (Patrick Stewart), after his quick change from appearing as the Ghost moments before, enters calmly, seemingly friendly, yet creepily calculated in his trademark methodical speech.
Opulent costumes adorn the royal family (apart from Hamlet himself), especially Gertrude (Penny Downie), who appears in several stunning satin evening gowns with extraordinarily long trains—probably too long, as they interfere with the fluidity of her performance on more than one occasion.
Even from the start, we see clearly the marked difference between most of the company’s ‘present mirth,’ despite old Hamlet’s recent death and young Hamlet’s natural melancholy following this loss, accentuated by everyone else’s apparent lack of grief. Tennant’s Hamlet is indeed a young prince. Although aged 37, his slender frame and performance approach works well to impose a tender age upon Tennant’s character portrayal. His first soliloquy illustrates his childish anger; he appears lost and helpless. Tennant delivers every line crisply, and even within the first few scenes we see many more facets to his acting that aren’t always seen in his screen performances. Tennant’s interpretation very clearly establishes that Hamlet’s madness is deliberately feigned—at least in the initial acts of the play.
Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia appears a genuinely emotional one. The core of his problem is dealing with these emotions in conjunction with the other serious circumstances that are playing on his mind. I think Tennant also shows us some resentment on Hamlet’s behalf—that he cannot live the normal life of a young man. “Words, words, words” is hilariously delivered, again, clearly showing his sanity at this point. This, combined with visual asides, most definitely demonstrates that there is, indeed, method in his madness.
Edward Bennett’s Laertes mixes a hint of arrogance with a straight-laced and stoic manner, while Ophelia (Maria Gale) is light and whimsical, full of the innocent joys of life in the opening scenes. This production highlights their filial relationship, and for similarly-aged audience members, these two young adults are very easy to relate to, thus bringing a highly tangible element to this family.
Gale’s madness is terrifying. Her distress is stratospheric, inducing near-nakedness and sporadic exclamations of fright. Crazed? Certainly. Believable? Possibly not, but by all means captivating and thrilling to watch.
Laertes' return from France brings him to the fore, having grown into a strong, confident and vengeful man. His stuffy, stoic arrogance is lost and he becomes a character akin to James Bond, Bennett dressed as such in a black leather jacket and polo neck. Unlike too many productions, the Laertes we see here is attractive, admirable and powerfully masculine. Even at this late stage, the relationship between Laertes and Ophelia is so much more tangible and accessible than other productions seem to bother.
Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) is perfect. Amiable, but generally tedious, his advice is always worth listening to, but never in quite the quantity in which it is given. Davies’ elongated idle musings are charmingly and humorously performed, giving him by far the most laughs. During his proliferations, the audience struggles, feeling a connection with Claudius as he – like the audience – makes innocent merriment at Polonius’ foibles. This moment of connection with Claudius complicates our relationship and judgment of him. Throughout, Stewart portrays Claudius as cold and calculating. Never obviously malicious, this does in fact make him a much more threatening and dangerous character. His soliloquy humanises him further; he clearly feels guilt, but crucially not enough to truly repent his actions.
Stewart’s Ghost is angry and formidable. He is persuasive and furious at the injustice he has suffered, and his graphic description of death is harrowing. His passionate pleadings make Hamlet’s actions far more believable to the audience. Instantly despair and melancholy seem entirely justified.
The set design (by Robert Jones) is innovative, with a mirrored concept pervading both stage and props. The mirrored background is particularly effective at key moments such as the fireworks, sightings of the Ghost, and Polonius’ death. And with a shattered mirror, so Hamlet’s sanity disintegrates.
Rosencrantz (Sam Alexander) and Guildenstern (Tom Davey) are well-portrayed as opportunists. They, too, expose Gertrude’s flirtatious side as she swoons and flirts with Rosencrantz. As such, our queen’s personality becomes more complex. Although there are moments where she struggles with her actions, she is also clearly a confident and aware, feisty and flirty woman.
Tennant’s scenes with Rosencantz and Guildenstern are electric, buzzing around them here and there like a scatty, excitable puppy. Their scenes are captivating and exhilarating, as is the bedroom scene. Here, Hamlet’s sanity becomes an ambiguous issue as the Ghost plays smoke and mirrors with his once wife and troubled son.
A sombre ending follows the well–portrayed and dramatic denouement of the play, and sums up the eerie darkness that pervades this production. This, coupled with the edge-of-the-seat thrills and some fantastic acting from some of Britain’s finest actors, results in a truly rare theatrical experience and an abundant feast.