Hamlet

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2008)

Production photo

One feels for Jonathan Miller, a prophet without honour in his own country, but Miller's misfortune is most certainly Bristol's gain, since the dearth of offers of work in the UK for the theatre/opera director and all-round polymath has, in part at least, brought him to Bristol and his collaboration with SATTF.

Quite why Miller, who is still much in demand in Europe, should find it so hard to get commissions here is a matter of debate. Sir Peter Hall, who has written candidly about his time as director of the NT, does not have many kind words for the former associate director, but Miller, though prone to some odd ideas, has certainly produced some genuinely fine work for the theatre and opera.

Mercifully, surprisingly even, his Hamlet is a very traditional one, in keeping with the approach of SATTF under artistic director Andrew Hilton. Thus the costumes are Tudor, Hamlet is very much the 'sweet prince' and Polonius is a meddling windbag, rather than the Machiavellian figure of recent stagings.

All the SATTF hallmarks, fidelity to the text, clarity of speech, "suiting the word to the action, the action to the word", are present and the play is largely uncut, running to three-and-a-half hours, although the time passes swiftly enough.

Jamie Ballard is very likeable Hamlet, younger than some of late, a man of smiles and tears, one who knows something is very wrong with his father's death, but who is unable to articulate it until he meets his father's ghost. In Ballard's hands we are made aware of Hamlet's warmth as in his admonition of Polonius for saying he will use the players 'according to their worth' - "Much better. Use every man after his desert and who shall scape whipping?"

What Miller brings out, an idea also explored by Pinter in Betrayal, is how a single act of transgression infects. From the murder of his brother, Claudius draws in Gertrude, Polonious, Ophelia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into his web of corruption, resulting in the compromising and death of all of them.

There are some telling insights: Hamlet, in a scene with Ophelia, catches sight of Claudius and Polonius in hiding and ups the feigned madness and, during the play within a play scene, Claudius, rather than rushing away, stands, searching Hamlet's face to see if he really knows how his father died.

Undoubtedly no actor can sound all Hamlet's stops, from the highest to the lowest note. Ballard, as remarked, catches much of the sweetness anyway that Simon Russell Beale found a few years ago and it is undoubtedly a very attractive personation. There is strong support from Jay Villiers as Claudius and Philip Buck as Horatio, while Roland Oliver is a decent if very traditional Polonius, one memory lapse aside. There is also a cameo appearance from Andrew Hilton as the ghost, a part he reprises from a 1970's Miller production.

Reviewer: Pete Wood