ARTS / Right of Reply: When Richard Dreyfuss' Hamlet opened last week, critics scoffed. Neal Foster defends the show

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The Independent Culture
PERSUADING Richard Dreyfuss to direct Hamlet looked like a coup for the actor-manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, Neal Foster. But the press panned it: 'Hamlet can rarely have been as bum- numbingly boring as this,' the Daily Telegraph said; 'The most stolid Hamlet I've yet seen . . . At Wittenberg, this Hamlet must, you feel, have been studying for a combined honours in chemistry and geography,' noted Paul Taylor in the Independent.

It took the directorial debut of a Hollywood star, and all the resulting media hype, to bring the national critics to the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham, and they couldn't let us forget it. It would be difficult indeed for a hardened critic to come away from this production without extracting some pretty good copy, as some of them confessed in their reviews. Richard Dreyfuss was the bait, and the critics bit.

I agree it is an intellectually lightweight production. It's a simple telling of a great story - but I have yet to hear a member of the audience express anything other than great enjoyment.

And there's the rub. It's enjoyable - clear, compelling and concise - not what you always expect from three hours of Shakespeare. Only the Daily Mail was bold enough to be boringly even-handed: 'It's more than a celebrity stunt - it's an honourable approach'.

Paul Taylor's Independent review was extremely funny but it caricatured everything it touched to the point of overkill. And its conclusion that the Old Rep's glory days are over was woefully incorrect: record- breaking audiences, critical acclaim and standing ovations for productions such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are restoring the theatre to its pride of place in the city. Mr Taylor has only seen one of our productions - I invite him to see a few more, even if they're not directed by a Hollywood star, before he passes judgement.

We took a risk by inviting a talented American actor to attempt his directorial debut with a production of the magnitude of Hamlet. The gamble has paid off, with a very good show, packed houses and a delighted audience. You cannot please everyone all the time, but I think that we have got our priorities right.

'Hamlet' at the Birmingham Old Repertory Theatre (021- 616 1519), to 15 Oct

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