This one’s a screamer. Jonathan Slinger is one of the RSC’s major acting assets at the moment. He has worked his way up to playing a range of main parts, from Richards II and III to Prospero and Malvolio, and now he quite deservedly gets a shot at the biggest of them all. But this is where his ascent plateaus. For what he fills this role with, principally, is volume. Slinger doesn’t shout all the time; it is an occasional choice, but the occasions are too numerous. Nor is it a matter of bare shoutiness; he continues to deploy a variety of cadence and timbre … but they tend to lose out to the volume. Sometimes, in contrast, he opts for an infrabass vocal register, so low in pitch that it seems to be emerging from the bowels of a much larger man. His performance is far from being intellectually or emotionally lightweight, but it is not compelling enough to avoid our being distracted by matters such as his vocal tactics.
He is hampered by director David Farr’s staging concept. (It seems to work a similar charisma drain on the normally magnetic Greg Hicks as Claudius, who is left to signal his villainy by wearing a double-breasted suit.) Farr sets the action in the hall/gymnasium of an expensive boarding school: foils and fencing masks hang from the walls, along with the Danish national flag furled in a corner of the stage-onstage. Horatio (the now consistently worthwhile Alex Waldmann) is the kind of affable, bespectacled housemaster who wears Scandinavian sweaters; Pippa Nixon’s Ophelia is a shy English mistress whose first encounter with Hamlet causes her to drop a pile of marking. Farr may be using the school as an emblem for the nation, or at least the national establishment, as Lindsay Anderson did in his film If …, but in practice it feels like little more than an extreme solution to the problem of combining fencing foils with modern dress.
And when the setting’s capabilities run out, as they do during the crucial “closet” scene between Hamlet and Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell in matronly bad-taste couture), they do so with inescapable force. All in all, Ophelia, who has been left lying downstage in a shallow grave throughout Act V, may have had a lucky escape: imagine how earsplitting their wedding night could have sounded.