I’m a worrier by nature and, having booked tickets for the RSC’s most recent production of Hamlet eleven months in advance, I’ve had plenty of time to worry about whether my trip to Stratford with Daisy (her birthday present) would be a success.
First things first. My worries about the travel arrangements and accommodation were unfounded. Stratford is not the easiest of places to get to from Edinburgh but, if you don’t mind changing trains twice in central Birmingham and the whole thing taking longer than it takes to get from Edinburgh to London, its painless. We lucked out with our choice of guest house – I’d unhesitatingly recommend White Sails to anyone visiting Stratford, especially for a special occasion.
However, as the man himself says ‘the play’s the thing’ but, here again, my worries were groundless. Gregory Doran’s modern dress production was presented with minimal set (although many of the props were lavish) so the performances really had to stand up. And, my God, they did. Patrick Stewart as Claudius is a study in urbane restraint. His style of rule is contrasted with Old Hamlet’s, showing that whereas Old Hamlet was a warrior king, Claudius is a politician, resolving conflict through diplomacy. In an age where British politicians are allegedly less trusted than at any time in history, this approach to Caludius’ character, upon whose deception and treachery the play turns, gives a fresh, contemporary relevance to the proceedings. Humour is not something immediately associated with Hamlet but Oliver Ford-Davies’ performance as Polonius, which plays on that character’s long-winded wordiness, is genuinely laugh out loud funny. In Act 1, while doling out advice to Laertes on how to dress and conduct himself abroad, he plucks a gaudy silk handkerchief out of his son’s breast pocket and, shaking his head, hands it to Ophelia. At the end of the speech, he presses some money into Laertes’s hand as a final farewell before turning away. There follows a lovely little bit of business between Ophelia and Laertes, her giving him the handkerchief and him giving her the money, smiling knowingly at each other all the while. The fact that this takes place behind Polonius’s back neatly underlines the amused affection they have for their father. I have read some comments from other theatregoers suggesting that Polonius is presented as a diminished figure of fun, but I have to disagree. As someone in her mid-forties, I thought that the attitudes of the younger characters towards Polonius (everything from amused affection to sarcastic disdain) rang all too true and that far from diminishing Polonius, presented him in a sympathetic, humane light.
As for David Tennant, he is, quite simply, superb. I know, I know, as a long-time fan I would say that but he truly is. His Hamlet is tortured by his grief but in no way over-played – I swear the tension in the auditorium was palpable – and manic in his ‘madness’. His powers as a mimic – he is after all an actor who has built the bulk of his reputation playing in an accent other than his own – are also used to good effect. He apes the speech patterns and affectations of those around him in a way which is simultaneously funny and incisive. He is possibly never better than during the ‘play-within-the-play’ – while most of the court looks on in bemusement, Hamlet needles and provokes Claudius until we see Claudius realise that the game is up but, ever the consummate politician, he holds things together (just) until the end of the scene, leaving Hamlet exultant. For me, David Tennant has always been an actor who could provoke the full spectrum of emotions in an audience and he didn’t disappoint although I didn’t actually shed tears (I was in the company of my daughter, who frowns on such behaviour!)
As for those who say that Tennant’s casting is just a cynical attempt to appeal to those reviled groups: the young and the ‘light-entertainment’ audience, I would like to point out that ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which we also saw and is a TFP*, had a much higher proportion of youngsters in its audience. Quite frankly though, anything or anyone who can entice the young and non-theatre-goers into theatres is a Very Good Thing, in my book.
Oh, and Daisy had a wonderful time too! My only problem now is: how do I top this next year?!