Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford, and touring
Yukio Ninagawa's production opens on a black box set with strands of barbed wire stretching from floor to ceiling and with large light bulbs swinging alarmingly, high up over the stage. The actors make their entrances through very high and narrow black doors, which are almost invisible when closed in the black walls. The stark set design by Tsukasa Nakagoshi has plenty of tall vertical lines, giving the impression of intimidating architecture whilst at the same time creating a claustrophobic feeling with the black walls and the doors that slam closed by themselves.
From the opening moments, this is a tense, compelling theatrical experience. Michael Maloney is a very charismatic Hamlet; he manages to explore every dark corner of this richly-layered character convincingly and keep the audience's attention and sympathy all the way. He is supported on his journey by the excellent Bob Barrett as Horatio whose love and deep concern for his friend comes over at every moment.
Peter Egan as Claudius presents an excellent adversary to Hamlet, covering his Machiavellian thirst for power with a very charming manner. His doubling as the ghost of Hamlet's father may be a little confusing to anyone who does not know the play well, as he just looks like Claudius in a different jacket.
Robert Demeger's Polonius gets a few laughs as the rambling old man, but also shows his sinister side, especially when trying to exercise control over his son and daughter. Laura Rees is an effective Ophelia, but Adam Dodd seems a little stiff as Laertes, and Mido Hamada's diminutive, moustachioed Fortinbras looks more like a Greek waiter than a great leader.
Rosencrantz (Brendan O'Hea) and Guildenstern (Nick Bagnall) look a bit lost and out of place, and appear uncomfortable in their costumes from the rather strange polo-necked jumpers they first appear in to the black shirts with the massive red scarves they wear later. However there are no real weak links in this company; all manage to put across both the musicality of Shakespeare's verse and the meaning of the words - something that even our leading theatre companies sometimes fail to achieve.
Most of Lily Komine's effective costume designs add simple painted detail to a basic, one-colour costume base, apart from the more elaborate battledress of Hamlet's father's ghost. Tamotsu Harada has created some very effective lighting designs, although some scenes rely a little too much on follow-spots that do not always cover all of the main actors in a scene and often do not move at the same speed as those they are supposed to follow. Fight director Terry King has set a very effective and exciting sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes for the climax of the play.
This is an excellent production with a superb cast that opens up the complexity of this play in a compelling and intelligible way without insulting the intelligence of the audience. Despite a running time of nearly three and a half hours, the time goes very quickly and you are left wanting more.
Hamlet runs until 6 November 2004 and continues to tour until 11 December
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Barbican
Reviewer: David Chadderton