English Touring Theatre
Theatre Royal, York
ETT has garnered an enthusiastic following in the York area. It was obvious from the pre-performance chat that many people had seen the company's three previous Shakespeare productions at the Theatre Royal and were looking forward to their fourth. Stephen Unwin's back-to-basics approach to the Bard - clear, fast-paced and uncluttered - seems to have struck a chord with playgoers, and his new period production of Hamlet has been eagerly awaited by those of us who were bowled over by his superb King Lear.
Elsinore, as designed by Michael Vale, is a forbiddingly dark, claustrophobic place - only candles and a couple of backlit windows break the Stygian gloom. Mark Bouman's costumes are rich (but not gaudy!) and the few items of Jacobean furniture on display were clearly not designed with comfort in mind. Malcolm Rippeth's atmospheric lighting helps to create a world in which "something is rotten" and anything can happen.
The play, as we have come to expect from ETT, boasts a strong cast. In the title role Ed Stoppard's naturalistic delivery is occasionally a little too fast to be comprehensible, but he avoids the trap of making the part sound like a string of famous quotations. Stoppard's Hamlet is every inch "the glass of fashion", an intelligent and sensitive young man trapped in a living nightmare, but he makes little of his character's black humour and feigned insanity. Still, it's abundantly clear that Stoppard has the potential to become a major Shakespearean star in the not too distant future.
It's a curious fact that with every new production of Hamlet Claudius seems to get nicer and Polonius nastier, as if there were a weird causal relationship between the two. However, just for a change Unwin gives us a coldly efficient Claudius (the excellent David Robb) and an affectionate Polonius (ETT regular Michael Cronin, who also makes a memorable appearance as the Gravedigger). Ben Warwick as Laertes and Alice Patten as Ophelia both make their marks as the ill-fated siblings - Warwick is genuinely devastated by his sister's pitiful fate, and in Ophelia's mad scene Patten never resorts to the clichéd drama school histrionics that so many young actresses find irresistible. The smaller roles are equally well cast, with an honourable mention for Richard Hansell as Reynaldo, Osric and a glamorous Player Queen.
The only disappointing performance comes, unfortunately, from the production's one big name - Anita Dobson as Gertrude. Although she speaks the part well enough there isn't a spark of erotic attraction between the Queen and Claudius, nor was I convinced by her repentance in the closet scene. Dobson's lack of response to Polonius' murder pushes the scene perilously close to comedy, and her own death was greeted by much suppressed giggling in the audience. Proof, if any were needed, that TV stardom and Shakespearean competence don't necessarily go hand in hand
Although this production doesn't quite reach the heights of the company's King Lear it passed one test with flying colours - that of holding the attention of a large audience of sixth form students for over three hours. It's a clear and involving Hamlet which I would warmly recommend to anyone coming to Shakespeare for the first time.
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson