Knee-high, short shrift Brought to his knees Knee-high to himself One-man knees-up Prince of the kneejerk Bringing Hamlet to his knees A law unto himself

THEATRE Elsinore Nottingham Playhouse and touring Even with rivets intact, something is still rotten in the state of Robert Lepage's hi-tec Hamlet.
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The Independent Culture
My taxi from the station to Nottingham Playhouse had to go on quite a detour because, as the driver explained, the celebrity switch- on of the Christmas street lights was taking place. My God, I thought, let's hope the celebrity isn't Robert Lepage, or they'll fuse on the spot. An unworthy notion, perhaps, but one I couldn't resist since this French- Canadian theatre wizard is in town with Elsinore, the solo show that had to be pulled from this year's Edinburgh Festival when a gremlin, in the shape of a faulty rivet, put the high-tech production into abort mode.

Now belatedly unveiled in Britain, Elsinore suggests that it is not just Lepage's rivets that are faulty. Theatre folk sometimes like to talk sentimentally of their art as constituting "two planks and a passion". With Lepage, it's more a case of "a million computer projections, an infra-red surveillance camera, an environnement sonore, a harness, somersaulting scenery, an optional mud bath and a passion". Nothing necessarily wrong with that. Theatre of Poverty is only one kind of theatre. But does all the technical dazzle here help take you on a journey into Hamlet's soul? No, it takes you on a scary safari into Lepage's human limitations.

Like Coleridge ("I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so...") and just about everybody else, Lepage projects himself on to this Shakespearian hero. "Isn't it an absence of blind passion that prevents Hamlet from doing what he has to do?" asks Lepage in a programme note. "Some might say this isn't the most important paradox in Hamlet's nature; but for me, it's the only one, because it's the one I share." The puerile solipsism of that is quite barking and, besides, there's surely a difference between an absence of blind passion and being weirdly passionless.

So what's on offer, spectacle-wise? Well, a lot of fairly familiar Lepagean tricks. His interest in making you look at things through slots and apertures - as in his production of Coriolanus, where, at certain crucial moments, you were allowed to see the hero's knees but not his face - is again strongly in evidence here, with the twist that, because Lepage has to be everybody in the play, these apertures now allow for a partially visible stand-in. So when Polonius waylays Hamlet in a library (cue projections of book shelves over the three screens), we see just the legs of the stand-in Hamlet on a veering library ladder, while Lepage as Polonius jabbers away to the knees. When Desmond Barritt scurried about playing both Antipholus twins in an RSC production of The Comedy of Errors, it was utterly in keeping with the nature of that play. But Lepage's equivalent stunts here (coming on and off from behind a screen as alternately Hamlet and Laertes in the final fencing match) create a peculiar tricksy detachment that feels grotesquely at variance with the tone of this drama.

If you removed all the technicalities, Lepage's creepily affectless performance might put you in mind of someone who had gone mad and now imagined he was Peter Sellers, who had, in turn, gone mad and now imagined he was the entire cast of Hamlet. Playing a hero who has "that within which passeth show", Lepage paradoxically, as Sellers often did, gives you the disturbing feeling that there is nothing inside.

Watching all these hello-I-must-be-going, conceptually cross-eyed imagistic antics, with Lepage often both on-stage and backstage at the same time (courtesy of a film camera), I suddenly remembered the comedian Harry Worth's body-pressed-against-shop-window mirror-image semaphore at the start of his old TV show. Now that had a bit of feeling. The second-night audience with whom I saw Elsinore absolutely loved it but, with respect, I submit that the experience they enjoyed was more akin to "An Evening with David Copperfield", the magician, than an evening of serious directorial vision such as you get with a Peter Brook or a Deborah Warner.

A friend of mine made the astute remark that Cliff Richard's stage musical Heathcliff is already the video. Elsinore, if it had a bit more interactivity, would be well on the way to being its own CD Rom.

At Nottingham Playhouse tonight (0115 941 9419); then touring: Newcastle Playhouse 27-30 Nov (0191-230 5151); Glasgow Tramway 3-7 Dec (0141-287 3900); Cambridge Arts Theatre 11-14 Dec (01223 503333); RNT, London 4- 11 Jan (0171-928 2252)

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