THEATRE / Long, sad tale of a great Dane: Paul Taylor reviews Kenneth Branagh in the RSC's Hamlet

There is nothing like a Dane; nothing in the world. Or at any rate, Kenneth Branagh must think so, for this is no less than his third stab at playing the greatest Dane of them all, Hamlet. When he last tackled the part on stage in 1988, he drew an impressive portrait of reckless, self-divided impetuosity. This would-be revenger came across, at times, as a sort of Errol Flynn with a PhD, his swashbuckling action- man pose fated to buckle under the complex burden of consciousness.

There's still a strong physical charge to the performance he gives in Adrian Noble's new, uncut, arresting (if over- interpreted) production at the Barbican, and a wonderful sense of dangerous, goading levity in the scenes of feigned madness. (Provocatively, as though it were the latest fashion in casual wear, he sports a loose, dangly, straitjacket on his first encounter with Polonius; later, after all his antic insinuations in the thrilling play scene, he's trussed up in one for real.) On the whole, though, it's a slower, more reflective and movingly filial Prince the actor projects this time round.

This can have its drawbacks. Some of Hamlet's more sententious lines sound as though they are being embroidered directly onto a sampler or turned into poker-work mottos, such is the deliberate emphasis he gives them. Yet it's also true that the growing moral authority in Branagh's performance (which starts off bitty) is one of the most moving aspects of the long, four-and-a-half- hour evening. A pity (and a tactical error), then, to have Rob Edwards' Horatio weep so profusely during the key 'special providence in the fall of a sparrow' speech. We don't need any sentimental encouraging to find the moment affecting; also, because Branagh now happens to be giving his tearful friend a reassuring hug when he says it, the line 'Let be' is reduced to sounding like a reassuring 'there, there' rather than like the massive philosophical breakthrough it reveals.

Set in the Edwardian period, Noble's production is full of huge theatrical gestures, and if some of these don't quite persuade you that they are backed up by insights on the same scale, it's surprising how many of them succeed. For example, Joanne Pearce's heartbreaking Ophelia is led off like a little girl from one of the earlier scenes wrapped up in (and weighed down by) Polonius's topcoat - paternal over-protectiveness and infantilising domination registered sartorially. That she would end up donning the entire outfit worn by her father (a hilariously blinkered David Bradley) at the time of his murder was a fairly safe bet. The complaint that this is external director's-theatre evaporates, though, before the overwhelmingly desolate spectacle of Pearce, wits gone, trudging round like a listless, wounded penguin in dwarfing, bloody tails, or sitting at her piano, like some burnt-out prodigy, thumping discordant accompaniments to her mad songs.

Some of the ideas have an almost comic literalism. Denmark as an 'unweeded garden/That grows to seed'? There's a large, scruffy window-box of a graveyard at the front of the stage where, horror-movie fashion, the Ghost's hand unearths itself in the opening moments, swiftly followed by the rest of him. Halting the play, a distraught Claudius (John Shrapnel) disembowels a cushion principally, it seems, to give trite visual back-up to Hamlet's 'forest of feathers' image, while for the closet scene, Jane Lapotaire's Gertrude wears lurid red, being presumably as bad a judge of colour symbolism as of men.

On the other hand, Bob Crowley's striking designs (which include a brilliantly nightmarish auditorium) bring a poetic, non-literal intensity to our picture of the court's moral decline. In the second half, for example, a voluminous grey dustcloth is slowly pulled off a world of stark disorder and impending death: overturned chairs and a floor choked with the pot-pourri of strewn funeral flowers. In the funeral procession at the end, Hamlet is borne away from this stricken milieu to the outstretched arms of his father's ghost. It's certainly a fitting reward for so loving a son as Branagh has seemed, yet to have this as the climactic stage picture risks obscuring the fact that the play is about the futility of revenge, not its rewards. The image stirs, but simplifies.

Polonius's observation that madness can have a method in it is everywhere applicable in Madness in Valencia, a comedy by Shakespeare's contemporary, Lope de Vega, now brought to life in a zestful, irreverent production by Laurence Boswell at the Gate. Its murky corridors wittily evoked by mud-splattered black curtains, the mental institution where the play is set turns out to have only one genuinely mad inmate, the Doctor. In Christian Flint's hilariously barking performance (all insane, preoccupied stares and sudden weirdo gymnastic jerks), he looks as though a straitjacket would suit him down to the ground.

A slapstick farce which keeps precipitating the patterns and paradoxes you might expect from Renaissance love poetry, the play focuses on an oppressive Spanish society where certain sorts of freedom can only be found within the confines of the madhouse, an ambiguous prison-paradise. The hero Floriano (Simon Kunz) thinks he's murdered the prince and so seeks sanctuary there under the guise of madness. He meets Erifilia (excellent Caroline Loncq) who, having been robbed and stripped by the servant she eloped with, is also claiming protection under false pretences. It's love at first sight but, as each thinks the other is mad, there are mind-warping complications beyond those caused by the ordinary madness of love. This results in some very funny scenes of mutual probing, skilfully handled in David Johnston's free, modernising version.

The Gate began its excellent year with Walpurgis Night, a modern Russian play set in a Soviet psychiatric hospital and ends it back in a (lighter, zanier) madhouse in 17th-century Spain. This gives you some idea of the range of fascinating rarities this theatre grants asylum.

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