Review – Hamlet with David Tennant, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

Thursday 28 August 2008

Yes, yes, we know it’s not the West End and that it’s Shakespeare, but it had to be done.

Done by Andrew, anyway. Phil refused to be dragged away from his metropolitan “lifestyle” (Let us hope that involved him doing something about the state of his fridge for there is surely something rotten in it) for a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Even now Phil insists that it is necessary to change trains to get there and refuses to listen to Andrew’s account of the contemporary transport arrangements. He utterly refutes Andrew’s report that there are no longer such things as third class carriages. Andrew has held his tongue.

Oh well, every dog has his day and so, it was that Sue K (Clarification: Andrew is the dog in this analogy, not Sue) stepped into Phil’s fill-in mode. And the first thing to report is that an evening at the theatre apparently does not necessarily involve bickering. This was something of revelation to Andrew who found the entire outing both intellectually stimulating and emotionally restful.

Anyway, this, of course is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the inspirational casting of a Doctor Who (David Tennant) in the title role and a Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) as both Claudius and the ghost of Old Hamlet.

In the excellent programme (£3.50) director Gregory Doran saves the Whingers a great deal of work by being refreshingly open about the sloppiness of Shakespeare’s writing to the point of listing the following inadequacies (he calls them “ambiguities”):

  • When did Claudius and Gertrude begin their affair? Was it before Old Hamlet’s death?
  • Is that why the Ghost accuses them of adultery?
  • Why does Hamlet adopt his antic disposition?
  • Does Hamlet realise he is being overheard in the nunnery scene?
  • Does Claudius actually reveal his guilt in his reaction to The Mousetrap, or is that Hamlet’s imagination?
  • And what does Horatio think?
  • Why does the Ghost appear in the the closet scene?
  • And what effect does that have on his old family?
  • Does he prevent his son’s attack on his mother?
  • Is that his intention?
  • Why does Gertrude seem not to have run to help Ophelia as she drowns?
  • Why does Shakespeare put the invitation to the duel in the mouth of a waterfly like Osric?
  • When does Gertrude realised the cup is poisoned?

This prompted in Andrew a most disagreeable flashback to his O Level days and had him hyperventilating in the foyer. Some deep breathing into a paper bag helped the panic to subside before the old examination adrenaline started pumping reliably through his varicose veins.

He had already begun to jot some model answers down for Mr Doran before realised that he could not actually answer any of the questions – indeed he couldn’t remember even what happened at the end (everyone dies).

The show itself went rather better. Although he found himself floundering with the language from time to time he got all the major plot points and – remarkably – did not once sleep, perchance to dream. No mean feat when even this “short” version, runs for 3 hours 35 minutes.

So congratulations to Mr Doran for turning Hamlet into a witty thriller to the point where the interval even breaks mid-scene in a cliff-hanger (Will Hamlet drive that dagger into Claudius’s back or won’t he? We won’t spoil it for you). And the excellent music by Paul Englishby adds to the Hitchcockian mood with a Bernard Herrmann-in-brass kind of feel. All it lacked was Jessie Royce Landis as Gertrude.

There was much else to enjoy: giant mirrors, a shiny floor, a terrific sword fight (arranged by guess who?), smoking on stage (and from under Old Hamlet’s coat) and some very funny moments.

Indeed, Oliver Ford Davies (left) turns in a particularly delicious performance as Polonius and Mark Hadfield‘s comedy northern George Formby grave-digger is a delightful device for making clear that the scene is meant to be funny even though the jokes aren’t. Northern people really are very funny, aren’t they?

David Tennant (right, with Penny Downie) is funny too, brightly chirruping “Goodnight Mother!” as he drags Polonius’s corpse off stage. He also turns in a pretty good impression of Patrick Stewart in his response to Claudius’s demand, “Where’s Polonius?”.

Better still, Andrew’s seat was perfectly positioned on the aisle nearest the bar enabling him to beat the rush during the (single) interval.

Yet for all this there is one big problem – the stage. The Courtyard (the RSC’s temporary home while the proper theatre is being renovated at a cost of £112 million) features a relatively square thrust stage (plus a couple of quasi-vomitoria – can’t think why we haven’t used that word before) which is almost like theatre in the round and not unlike traverse staging. This means that at any point in the proceedings some people have no view worth talking about and in some cases (such as when the performers are in a circle) nobody has a good view. Andrew’s seat seemed to be on some kind of Stratfordian ley line whose influence dictated that whenever three or more people were on the stage, the three key actors would be exactly aligned with Andrew, the nearest with his back to him.

The bad news is to expect more of this because the new theatre will apparently feature more thrust. You see, our love of the proscenium isn’t simple fogyism on our part, there is method in our madness.


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12 Responses to “Review – Hamlet with David Tennant, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon”

  1. Meaghan Says:

    Thanks for the great review – I can’t wait to see it when it comes to London. I’ve definitely heard overall positive things for the performance but honestly, since it’s David Tennant and Hamlet (my favourite actor in my favourite play) I don’t think I could possibly be disappointed.

    While I’m waiting, I’ve got Frantic’s rendition of Hamlet preformed at midnight at the Globe next week to tide me over. Anyone going? You can actually win tickets here: but they should still have some on sale.

    I’m such a geek… I’m going to spend the next hour pouring over the Hamlet blog!

  2. Sue Says:

    I just want to say that I was truly honoured to get to be an ersatz Phil for a night. And that I loved the show.

  3. Michael Sharpe Says:

    Good Grief! I didn’t think anyone, other than myself,remembered Jessie Royce Landis. I can’t wait for you to drop Enid Stamp Taylor’s name.

  4. Pat Miller Says:

    Hey, I remember Jessie Royce Landis (Cary Grant’s Mum in North by Northwest) and the thought made me laugh out loud. I can quite see her in the role (her younger self) with Tennant.

  5. Rev Stan Says:

    I saw it last night and thought it was astonishingly good. Had seats on the front row by one of the aisle-thingies and spent most of the first half trying not to get slapped around the side of the head by the costumes as the actors rushed past.
    Know what you mean about the view, during The Mousetrap scene when its kind of about how Claudius reacts to the additional lines Hamlet has given the players, my view of him was totally blocked by other actors. Still I got to watch Tennant intently staring at the whole thing.
    It will be interesting to see how it is staged at the Novello when it transfers which doesn’t have a thrust stage or the sort of ceiling that actors can abseil down from or disappear up into.

  6. Michael Sharpe Says:

    Yes Pat, but do remember Jessie Royce Landis on the stage?She made several appearances in the West End in the ’50s,and I remember seeing her at the Vaudeville in 1951 in “Come Live With Me” and,later that year,at the New(or as I like to think of it as the NAC-for New/Albery/Coward)in “And So To Bed.”Memorable on film in “To Catch a Thief” stubbing out her cigarette in a pot of cold cream!

  7. Zau Says:

    Great review – Tennant’s imitation of Patrick Stewart is hilarious indeed. Though I’m afraid to say that my enjoyment of the evening I went to the play (the first one) was sadly disminished by having to sit so very near Gordon Brown. And mine wasn’t even a great seat, either!

  8. Simone Says:

    Te he he

    I think the Dalek zapping the WEW logo is adorable.

    I have to wait till December to catch Hamlet. *sigh*

  9. tom davis Says:

    i really like the thrust at the courtyard, even though normally i prefer shows safely stored away under a pros arch. it just seems to work quite well with shakespeare. and i also like the way that sometimes you have to watch action indirectly, ie through reactions, it makes it seem more real in some ways

  10. Judith Says:

    Went to see Hamlet on Tuesday night – an amazing and breathtaking performance by all the actors. The best Shakespeare production I have ever seen and will live long in my memory.

  11. Stu Says:

    Also, Ophelia is pregnant, but why doesn’t Shakespeare make more of it than mentioning a flower in her ‘madness’ scene?

  12. nina Says:

    Excellent – I couldn’t have put it better myself!

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