live Hamlet Rose Theatre, Oxford

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The Independent Culture
Matthew Wright, designer of Oxford Stage Company's powerful new Hamlet, has clearly spent many assiduous hours burrowing through the Danish telephone directory. His two-tier traversal stage set pictures Elsinore as a massive funerary monument, the names of generations of the dead and of the royal dynasty incised on the sloping, polished slate floors. An ironic image for a court bent on not remembering the newly deceased king whose portrait is forced to look across at that of Claudius, his fratricidal usurper. The moral contrast between the grave, honourable soldier and the smiling, besuited public relations expert is all the more pointed here since, as very well doubled by William Russell, these characters are, in other respects, virtually clones.

Thanks to the Windsor family soap opera, the predicament of being next in line to the throne is a subject much in people's minds and Prince Charles's plight has found its way on to the stage obliquely in The Madness of George III and directly in Divine Right. Evidently picking up on this, the gripping production by John Retallack and Karl James lays an unusual stress on Hamlet as a young man cheated of his rightful succession, cast in the painfully paradoxical role of dispossessed heir to his father's murderer.

To emphasise this, the crown and the sword of state are symbolically suspended over the action throughout. The fact that the hero only becomes king when he is minutes away from death comes across here with a piercing sadness, as Ian Pepperell's Hamlet, his legs giving way beneath him, summons up his last reserves of willpower to walk over to the throne. The production gives an extra twist to the agony of this injustice by the way it stages the entry, after Hamlet's death, of Andrew Maud's Fortinbras. In a wonderfully charged sequence, this decisive man of action, who could not begin to understand the complexities of Hamlet or of Hamlet, has only to reach up to the crown and sword for them to descend into his hand, as if charmed down by some magical power. Fortune favours the limited.

The directors' thoughts were clearly far from Prince Charles when they made the bold casting of Ian Pepperell in the title role. More a little terrier than a Great Dane, this slight actor looks so young and adolescent that when he makes notes in his pocket book, you wonder if it's The Secret Diary of Adrian Hamlet, aged 15 and three-quarters. In passion and wit, though, he is very much the right stature and constantly finds fresh routes through the assault course of this role. For example, he places Yorick's skull centre stage and sits and talks to it from a distance as if rebuking a comic performer who has inconsiderately gone on strike. A nice touch in a production that's alive to the play-within-a-play elements of this drama, and also to the stage-managed nature of the toadying court with Colin George as an excellent, slightly dotty Polonius, and a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Timothy Clarke and John Sackville who look like a double act of the kind of public schoolboys nature earmarks for estate agency.

n To 24 Aug (01865 798600); then on tour (01865 245781)