Regular readers of the arts pages may recall that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet had its official London opening last month without its leading man, David Tennant. The understudy, Edward Bennett, stepped into the role at the eleventh hour. The production survived remarkably well, Bennett acquitted himself with tremendous credit and the result vindicated the RSC’s emphasis on ensemble work.
Now, after surgery, Tennant (pictured) has returned for the final few days of the run, so a review can be for the record only. But this is the London staging as it was intended, and so worth documenting – particularly as, with Tennant at the helm, the production is even better: surely one of the best Hamlets of the age.
Tennant makes a superb Hamlet: mercurial, damaged, perhaps not mad but certainly depressed. He begins still and thin, frozen with grief, his arms hugged around him as if holding himself together. When he delivers “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt”, he sinks to the floor, dissolving into tears, as if weeping might bring the words to pass. But once spurred into supposed action by the ghost’s visitation, he becomes driven by manic energy, lurching from sharp humour to passionate loathing and self-recrimination.
Tennant emphasises the feverish intelligence of the prince, helps you to see how Hamlet’s intellect is both his blessing and his curse, and, with his simple, direct delivery of the soliloquies, draws us into Hamlet’s troubled mind, so that his moral and metaphysical uncertainty meets our own.
Because Tennant’s Hamlet is charismatic, wily and unpredictable, the reaction of the court rings true, particularly that of Patrick Stewart’s Claudius, who reads Hamlet’s intent. Stewart is excellent: cold, calculating, his first thought always pragmatic. So too is Penny Downie’s Gertrude, torn apart by her son’s distress, and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius, bamboozled by Hamlet’s quick wit. Bennett, back as Laertes, makes a wonderful, impetuous foil to Hamlet’s inaction.
But Gregory Doran’s beautifully shaded production, on Rob Jones’s elegant, mirrored set, also lets us sympathise with these characters and doubt Hamlet’s worship of his father. It is not flawless – the end could be more moving – but this fine production constantly reminds us just what a great and complex play this is. It would be good to think that, given its journey, it will have have a further life, whether on stage or screen, for it shows the RSC at its best.