Edward Bennett as Hamlet
In Hamlet, the RSC have, by far, their best production of the year. Last night at the Novello Theatre, an enthusiastic audience rose to their feet in standing ovation to reward the actors on the conclusion of an oustanding performance.
Nothing new in this you might think – the play has met outstanding reviews since it opened in Stratford-Upon-Avon several months ago. But the performance now has to deal with overcoming the loss of its lead actor, David Tennant, to back injury which has caused reshuffling to not one but four of the parts of the play. Consequently, Edward Bennett, Tennent’s under-study, has had to pass the role of Laertes to Tom Davey who aside from being Bennett’s understudy would have been filling the role of Guildenstern. Guildenstern’s role is handed to Ricky Champ who otherwise would have played Lucianus. The part of Lucianus passed to Robert Curtis who had not even under-studied for that role.
All of this could have created chaos in a lesser company but all the evidence is that this group are so adaptable that, from day one, you could not see the join.
Certainly, this was the case last night. This reviewer has seen one too many Shakespeare’s this year where the director has tried to add some gloss of meaning by adding stage direction or costume oddities that the script would not bear and could not carry. Director, Gregory Doran’s triumph is that he draww out the meaning of the words in such a way that even this experienced Shakespeare watcher and reader found new depths in Hamlet that he had not even glimpsed before – depths that are there on the page as well as on the stage . No mere glosses here.
The achievement of Bennett is obvious. To takeover such an outstanding role in such an outstanding way is a huge achievement and one which should catapult his reputation. He has obviously learnt a lot from Tennent’s decisions on how the person of the Prince of Denmark should be handled and developed but this is to take nothing away from him. At the lower end of his spectrum, he was always still solid and insightful.
But he is surrounded by a marvellous cast. The beautiful Penny Downie as Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, and Hamlet’s mother is tortured and exquisite, by turns. Mariah Gale, shining much brighter here than she did as the Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost, manages to capture both the girlishness of Ophelia’s enthusiasm for Hamlet’s romantic approaches in the early scenes and the off-the-wall insanity her character is driven to in the death of her father. Breadth of ability is obviously the hallmark of this troupe! Likewise, Oliver Ford-Davies who seems to be destined to play slightly confused, wordy old men following his Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s, brings a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of the doddering but well-meaning Polonius.
Patrick Stewart perhaps carries a little too much of the stoicism he bear as Hamlet’s father’s ghost to his interpretation of Claudius and perhaps this means we learn too little about his motivations for his crimes. But these are minor quibbles and I might think better of them with another viewing – his work in the prayer and repentance scene is particularly good.
Ultimately, though this is Doran’s triumph. He is the one who has melded together this company to be able to adapt to such a major loss in their midst and the attendant clamour and unease that this might bring to the audience – some of whom might not be here but for Tennant’s name on the playbill. It is he that has decided on the inclusion of some speeches from the 2nd quarto which are normally neglected and the crucial positioning of the “To Be or Not to Be……” speech on which he follows the early quarto’s leading to great effect. The play has been developed with a stage set which is at times minimal and at time’s breathtakingly ostentatious but which in both modes adds to the audience’s thoughts about the underlying themes of the play.
This really is a major triumph. A major production.
A gorgeous Gertrude played by Penny Downie and the corrupt Claudius, a stoic Patrick Stewart