‘Hamlet’, without a doubt, is my favourite Shakespeare play, probably because of how much of it translates to today enabling it to show the timelessness of the Bard’s work. Even at the end, my friend and I were commenting on how many of today’s sayings we didn’t realise or had forgotten originated in ‘Hamlet’, a particular one for me being ‘to thine own self be true’.
Obviously the last hype over ‘Hamlet’ was the astounding performance by David Tennant, which I only got to witness on DVD sadly. A lot was resting on Jonathan Slinger’s shoulders as the latest incarnation presented by the RSC, and he did not disappoint. I always think the beauty of Shakespeare is that there are little to no stage directions, and the RSC always takes full advantage of this (not always successfully as I found with ‘Titus’ a few weeks ago, but certainly so here). Slinger came on stage almost like an old man, certainly not what I thought Hamlet would be. Then suddenly, he transformed into this man gripped by the obsession of revenge, turning him into a younger, more lithe man in the process. Before going in, we were discussing whether we thought Hamlet was actually mad or not by the end of the play, something with which I disagree: Slinger’s performance made me question my original perspective, so intense was his performance of insanity as the scheming prince. It was a welcome challenge, showing how differently the play could be interpreted and how no one version could ever really be an ‘accurate’ portrayal as such.
Likewise, I’d never imagined some of the other interpretations as such before. Gertrude went from the pliable wife and mother to a hard-nosed character; every line had an element of exasperation and anger towards her son’s refusal to move on and accept his father’s death (and towards buffoon Polonius!). Her hard exterior crumbled in the bedroom scene with Hamlet, turning her from a two dimensional object to someone with emotions and who actually felt the enormity of her first husband’s death and her son’s rage. Claudius (Greg Hicks) surprised me at one point by showing his softer side in the scene where Ophelia hands out flowers in her madness, with his tone showing his dire sympathy at her being a casualty of his intellectual war with Hamlet. Ophelia herself became more than a victim in her interactions with Hamlet, particularly the moments where speech was absent and you saw passion and anger come through more clearly than perhaps they do with the words alone.
The only disappointment for me was Laertes. His initial leaving was fine and easily dealt with, but his return was so lacklustre it was a struggle to see why he had any problem with Denmark, and it was only due to Claudius and Hamlet that we saw how he fitted into events. There was little anger, his remorse was stiffly portrayed, and his grief over Ophelia was pitiful in itself. Nothing seemed to bother this man, and it wasn’t clear why he chose to continue fighting Hamlet and why he would contest the leadership of Denmark. My friend’s young daughter actually didn’t pick up on Claudius manipulating Laertes’ return because of this, so it was disappointing that the climax was marred by this slight underperformance.
Effects were also well played; my particular favourite was how the Ghost was dealt with, with the lighting and music literally making the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, it was so haunting to watch this creature with his helmet make his way towards the central action that it meant when Hamlet finally got his audience with the Ghost the enormity of the moment was felt. A bizarre ending was also a shocker of a way to end, with alarm bells ringing (considering the fire alarm went off when I went to see ‘Macbeth’, also starring Slinger, I was almost heading for the door!) and rain pouring down. Once I’d decided not to flee the building, it was a suitably dramatic ending for a play based almost entirely on words and overthinking – the intensity was finally burst in an act of catharsis.
I was glad at the end that, for a brief moment, Jonathan Slinger came back on stage alone. His performance, as is probably true with most Hamlets, was the glue that held the performance together, and he was astounding. To be that intense and working at such a furious pace throughout is (ironically) an insane challenge, and one he rose to magnificently; move over Tennant, there’s a new Prince in town.