William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Barbican Centre

Steven Pimlott's production for the RSC is really a Hamlet for the 21st century. It looks absolutely stunning and uses effects that will become the norm but are currently right at the cutting edge of theatrical design. This production is very filmic and in time will surely be adapted for the television or cinema.

The costumes are modern with leather jackets, lounge suits and jeans abounding and this often helps the play to seem fresh and accessible. The design by Alison Chitty is determinedly minimalist with props restricted to little more than two wooden chairs for the vast majority of the play. The lighting is possibly the most effective seen on a London stage. The technology is new with lights that climb up and down, swivel and change through all of the colours of the rainbow. In the hands of Peter Mumford this adds a great deal to the impact of the play.

On occasions, it is possible for the actors to get a little lost in the vast spaces of the warehouse-like stage. The use of modern dress also reduces their substance on occasion but generally they are impressive. Sam West is the fourth man to play this part in London in the last 18 months. He may not be the best of these but gives a very interesting reading of the part. If nothing else, he is a revelation as he is frequently very laid-back and possibly the first pot-smoking Prince of Denmark.

As Hamlet says, he is "not in madness but mad in craft". Sam West plays Hamlet as a sane man. There are a couple of scenes in which the tremendous stress that he feels pushes him very close to the edge, once when he attempts to disentangle himself from the truly mad Ophelia and once when he believes that he sees his late father's ghost. Otherwise, Steven Pimlott has asked his cast to treat Hamlet as a sane but put-upon man wherever possible and this works in a 21st Century context.

This posture contrasts with the other characters, several of whom seem at least as mad as the Prince. In keeping with the modern approach, the strains of madness take the form of stress, that contemporary substitute for the real thing. While the slightly Irish-accented Ophelia, Kerry Conlon loses her mind, Larry Lamb as Claudius and Marty Cruikshank as Gertrude both seem to be as close to doing so as their "son". When this last pair first appears on stage during a political meeting, they look uncannily like Neil and Christine Hamilton - possibly not a coincidence? Their sleazy slickness compares with the first sight of a downtrodden Hamlet in a hooded sweatshirt.

The overall impression is of a very entertaining and humorous play with many tricks most of which work well although the use of guns and a flick-knife rather than swords can stretch the imagination. This must be balanced against Pimlott's imagination already seen in Richard II, which also starred West.

The director has a great eye for the visually absurd for example when Claudius mistakes Guildenstern, at about 6' 3", for Rosenkrantz, a full head and shoulders shorter. We also get striking motifs. For example, the final duel is fought between Hamlet and Laertes with the former dressed all in black and the latter in white: a simple device that adds meaning. Pimlott also understands the visually beautiful and with designer, Alison Chitty, would arguably have made a far better winner of the Turner Prize 2001 than Martin Creed.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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