Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
What a pleasure it is to see a good production of Hamlet, and what a wonderful opportunity it provides for the lead actor to explore this complex and sensitive character in what is, arguably, Shakespeare's most contemplative play. The image of Hamlet and the skull encapsulates what the play is about: a young man whose life has been turned upside down by the death of his father and his mother's "o'er hasty marriage", impelled on a course of action, to revenge his father's "foul and most unnatural murder" which he realises will lead to his own untimely death.
John Simm is outstanding as Hamlet. His edgy, mercurial performance runs a gamut of emotions, from outrage and anger (directed at himself, as well as Claudius and Gertrude) to deep melancholy in his musings on life, death, love and betrayal, and studied insolence in his dealings with Claudius, Polonius, and the perfidious Rosencrantz and Guilderstern. The soliloquies are particularly effective. He takes the whole sweep of the audience into his confidence, restlessly turning his head from one side to the other, making eye contact with individuals, thus drawing us all into his thoughts and emotions.
Motivation is generally crystal clear: particularly effective in the first encounter with Rosencrantz and Guilderstern when Hamlet gradually realises that they have been set to spy on him (a beautifully modulated scene). My one caveat is the nunnery scene when I would have liked to know at exactly what point Hamlet realises that his encounter with Ophelia is being observed. Equally, in the players scene I couldn't understand why Hamlet was lovingly stroking Ophelia's neck, when the lewdity of the language exchange suggests that Hamlet has rejected and is punishing Ophelia for her collusion in spying on him.
Clarity of interpretation is an important feature of this production (director Paul Miller). In the first court scene, Claudius is at a loss about how to deal with his recalcitrant step son, who is flaked out on the floor like a neurotic teenager; and in the bedroom scene Gertrude seems about to be persuaded by Hamlet that she has made a bad life choice - "Look upon this picture and on this" - but the appearance of the ghost, and Hamlet staring at vacancy, convinces her that he is mad, so she reverts, though not entirely, to her relationship with Claudius.
When I saw that Barbara Flynn was cast I thought we would have a sexy Gertude, who could convincingly "mutine in a matron's bones" and was not disappointed.
I am glad to say that the line elicited a good laugh from the audience - hey, women can enjoy sex after 60.
The interesting thing about the bedroom scene was the double casting of John Nettles as the Ghost and Claudius. Productions usually play up the innate sexuality of this scene, but for Hamlet to have his father/uncle in his bed clothes encountering his mother, deeply loved but accused of betrayal, made this much more of an Oedipal event.
There were other excellent performances in this production: Hugh Ross as Polonius treads a fine line between being a butt for Hamlet's wit, and a convincing elder statesman, a bit long winded, but well intentioned. A subtle and clever performance. I was sorry when he died. Michelle Dockery is a strong and convincing Ophelia, but seemed to be struggling a bit with the singing in the now anachronistic pre-death scene. The singing is fine and will get better with repetition.
Sadly, John Nettles' Claudius is disappointing, and often inaudible. I don't know whether this is because of the double casting, and that Nettles is trying for something complicated in his interpretation of the part, but in the early scenes he comes over as an ineffectual uncle, rather than a man who's murdered his brother to get power: and in the best scene, when he is racked by guilt and can't pray, nothing happens. At this point, we, as audience, should have some engagement with Claudius.
Lots of other really strong performances in the smaller parts. I particularly liked Alexander Vlahos as the Player Queen, such dignity and stage presence, but was disappointed that he couldn't do more with his hat as Osric (such a delightful cameo). Maybe the wrong hat! I really liked Laertes, Guilderstern, Voltimand, Cornelius, Player King, Marcellus and Horatio. But couldn't understand why Dylan Brown as Rozencrantz, was locked into a sychophantic body position reminiscent of 'Planet of the Apes. (Maybe something left over from rehearsals). I am sure he can straighten up without losing credibility.
The Crucible's huge thrust stage worked well for this production, except perhaps for the opening scene, which wasn't jumpy enough. I'm not sure what the actors can do about this when they're high up at the back of the stage, and the apron needs to allow enough light for us to see the ghost.
However, reservations aside, this is a really good production of Hamlet, which should be seen.
"Hamlet" continues at the Crucible until 23rd October
Reviewer: Velda Harris