Hamlet

William Shakespeare

Lyttelton, RNT

(2000)

Review by Philip Fisher

This production also in the Lyttleton Theatre at the National could not be more of a contrast with Noises Off if it tried. Whereas that is one of the classic farces, this is a major production of a great tragedy.

The knowledge that the short, rotund but tremendous actor, Simon Russell Beale, was to play Hamlet in the same year as had Mark Rylance at The Globe whetted many an appetite. This was clearly going to be a great year for productions of Hamlet and this seems to be superlative. That is not to diminish the Globe production which was in a very different style, but was also of very high quality with a great Hamlet. The difference might be likened to that between an old master and a Hockney.

Simon Russell Beale does not look like an imposing man and his interpretation of Hamlet is very much based on vulnerability. He speaks his lines absolutely beautifully and gives great depth and meaning to so much of the Shakespearean verse. In particular, in various soliloquies he shines and his phrasing during "to be or not to be" seems perfect.

It was interesting to compare the quality of his exploration of Hamlet's madness with that of Rylance. While both of them seem to suffer from a modern kind of madness, if that is possible, Russell Beale convinces in that he seems to be suffering from pressures brought on by depression and stress following the death of his father, and the marriage of his mother to his uncle. He also seems to be a very tired man who reacts excessively as a result. The only impression we have of a genuine clinical madness is in the visions of his dead father's ghost. This contrasts somewhat with the madder Rylance who appeared to suffer far more from inner voices and motivations and who looked like a mad man trying to cover up his sanity not a basically sane man with a weakness.

One of the beauties of plays at the Royal National Theatre is their seemingly massive budget for sets, costumes and lighting. Everything about this play was gorgeous, from the massive stage set giving the impression of a palace hall in the middle ages, through to the stunning tableaux on stage, which looked like paintings by the old masters. These were a product not only of the set designed by Tim Hatley, but also of the excellent use of dim lighting under the auspices of Paul Pyant, which came to a head during the "murder most foul" scene between Hamlet and his ghostly father. This scene was absolutely breathtaking as all of the elements of the production came together, good direction by John Caird, an excellent set and beautiful lighting. These are all enhanced by the lavish costumes and great acting that one has come to expect at RNT.

The set itself consists not only of the massive palace hall but also a very large number of medieval chandeliers which move up and down to convey different parts of the palace together with numerous trunks and cases, and a golden cross symbolising the richness of Elsinor.

Sara Kestelman as Hamlet's mother Gertrude gives a wonderful performance and throughout the many provocations from her son, she maintains a love and sympathy for him that only a mother could. While she and Russell Beale are perhaps the outstanding actors in this production, Cathryn Bradshaw as a sweet Ophelia and Guy Lankester as her brother Laertes form part of a very convincing and interesting family with their father Polonius, Denis Quilley. He is the joker of the play and also doubles up as the gravedigger.

This production, which has also sold out, is well worth seeing particularly for Russell Beale's interpretation of Hamlet as well as for the great direction, set and acting. In case there is a feeling that there is an overall bias in favour of Russell Beale's performance and that it approached perfection, he did show one significant weakness. He is possibly amongst the worst swordsmen to have had the opportunity of playing this part!