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Hamlet

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford
(2008)

The tickets tell the story before you even get into the theatre: below your seat number is the warning "void if resold for profit". That's because this Hamlet is one of the most hotly anticipated productions for many years.

While some people have been disappointed not to be able to see the first Hamlet at the RSC since 2004, others have unscrupulously taken advantage of the system: they've become members of the RSC so that they could get tickets before they went on general sale and then made a tidy profit on an internet auction site.

The reason for the hysteria is of course the return to the RSC of David Tennant, catapulted to a much wider audience through television and film appearances since he last appeared in Stratford eight years ago.

It's refreshing that so many young - and more mature - people wanted to see Tennant in the flesh and were willing to take a chance on Shakespeare. The after-show discussion with many of the cast confirmed a good proportion of the audience were watching their first Hamlet.

But in a way it's a pity so much attention over the past few months has been focused on Tennant to the detriment of the rest of the company. That's because this is probably the most exciting, exhilarating and well-acted Hamlet I've ever seen. I enthused about Toby Stephens' Hamlet at the RSC four years ago; this has a slight edge on that production.

During his first entrance in this modern-day production, Tennant appears in a black suit, white shirt and black tie; he's clearly still grieving over the death of his father while everyone else celebrates the wedding of his mother to his uncle.

There's an immediate hush when Tennant begins his "O! that this too too solid flesh would melt" soliloquy. His enunciation is almost faultless as he crouches down, showing the mental agony he's going through as self-pity takes over him.

Even the famous lines sound different as Tennant confidently portrays the multi-dimensional character, changing from a sceptic into an impetuous man of action and finally a hardened revenger.

He extracts every possible vestige of humour from the play, making the most of his feigned madness and constantly making fun of Polonius.

His final moments on earth appear strange as he dies very quickly without any pain. But overall it's a mesmerising performance from Tennant.

Sci-fi fans have the bonus of seeing Patrick Stewart in Hamlet but regular theatregoers will have seen him in previous RSC productions and know what a fine actor he is. He gives a marvellous portrayal of Claudius as an inherently evil man who eventually has to concede that he's unable to prevent himself sinning. Stewart as the Ghost of old Hamlet is less striking but effective nonetheless.

Penny Downie's Gertrude always tries to be the perfect wife and mother without any hint of a sexual relationship between herself and Hamlet.

Oliver Ford Davies gives us a fuddy-duddy, forgetful Polonius. He's neither a control freak nor a feared spymaster, as in some productions - here he's a strict father who's accorded more respect by the court than by his children.

Mariah Gale gives probably the most measured yet disturbing interpretation of Ophelia I've seen, arms flailing, wildly jumping up and down, angrily berating those around her as she descends into madness.

There are solid performances from the rest of the cast who ensure the pace never slackens although the play lasts for more than three hours.

Director Greg Doran as always has come up with a few fascinating departures which might not work but surprisingly do.

He reduces Fortinbras' role, cutting the Prince of Norway's final speech, including "The soldiers' music and the rites of war speak loudly for him", because it's not a description of the Hamlet we've seen.

Perhaps the most radical measure is putting the interval halfway through Act III Scene III in which Hamlet looks as though he's going to take the opportunity to kill Claudius while he's praying. It's a cliffhanger that appears to have been inserted for the benefit of those watching the play for the first time but it boosts the tension considerably.

I can't remember there ever being so much hype about a Shakespeare production as this one. Actually, though, it lives up to the build-up. I'm sure David Tennant would agree that this is a triumph not just for one man but for the whole ensemble.

"Hamlet" continues until November 15th before transferring to London's Novello Theatre from December 3rd to January 10th

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Novello Theatre with Edward bennett in the leading role

Steve Orme