THEATRE / A miss, a very palpable miss: Paul Taylor reviews Alan Rickman's Hamlet at the Riverside Studios, directed by Georgian Robert Sturua, and finds a prince short of passion

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Alan Rickman's Hamlet does the ' 'Tis now the very witching time of night' speech in cod cloak-and- dagger fashion, with a Richard III-style limp and a raised sword that ends up, like a flamenco dancer's rose, clamped between bared teeth. A witty way of signalling the mismatch between man and role, the speculative intellectual crudely cast as revenge hero? Well yes, but the self-conscious spoofing here is also one of several indications that Rickman is much more at home with the playful, sardonic side of Hamlet than he is with the confused, raw passions.

There is little sense of inner conflict in this performance, because it never properly convinces you that one part of Hamlet envies simpler natures and genuinely thirsts for his uncle's blood. At times, the staging only compounds this weakness. Rickman's Hamlet dangles from a balcony, for instance, over the praying Claudius. The sword he trails down towards him could just about manage nick his scalp but certainly couldn't get near enough to finish him off. In the stage picture this creates, revenge seems barely even on the cards.

With his famed talent for seductive menace, Rickman brings out all the tension, though, in Hamlet's toying manner towards Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His loungingly superior, smirking innuendo, punctuated with little disturbing laughs as if at some private joke, has a real edge of threat. These moments are far more powerful than the actual explosions, such as that in the closet scene, where he and Geraldine McEwan's Gertrude engage on all fours in what looks like a turtle race, while Rickman bawls abuse in her ear. A great deal of effort, but next to no oedipal charge.

'To sleep', interestingly, is the phrase this Hamlet most invests with voluptuous yearning. Making his way from Denmark, he intones the lines 'O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth' with an elegiac dying fall that indicates a detumescence of the will rather than the reverse. And, on his return, his new mood of resignation seems indistinguishable here from acute lethargy. But when Hamlet says 'the readiness is all', he is not just referring to an acceptance of death.

The production by the Georgian director Robert Sturua (working with an English cast) is not rich in fresh or illuminating touches, but a genuinely intriguing new angle is taken on Michael Byrne's shaven-headed, sinister Polonius. Before Laertes departs, this unfunny Polonius subjects his son to a joky, humiliating mock-coronation and then laughs half-maniacally at his handiwork. From this unsettling charade, you get the strong impression of someone with a dangerous hang- up about his own relationship to royalty, a condition that may help explain his ruinous, paranoid distrust of Hamlet's love for Ophelia.

Sturua swings to the opposite extreme from those East European directors who have used the tragedy (rather as Hamlet uses The Mousetrap) to comment codedly on abuses of power in their own countries and to point the finger of guilt. Indeed, with several characters in robes that are straight out of some intergalactic argy-bargy movie, and others in Edwardian or modern dress, it's hard to get any coherent sense of the political set-up in Elsinore.

David Burke doubles as old Hamlet and Claudius: as the one, he shuffles on more like an old tramp than a ghost and sneaks a cup of water from a barrel; as the other, he models a suit Comrade Stalin might have admired. Playing his guilty Queen, Geraldine McEwan starts off phenomenally nerve-racked, though those comically refined tones inescapably recall her Lucia (you half expect her to mop up her tears and exclaim brightly 'Un po' di Mozartino, Claudius?'). She later veers into madness more compellingly than Julia Forbes' Ophelia.

In spite of the loud prepublicity fanfare, the occasion did not rise to itself.

To 10 October, Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6 (081- 748 3354)

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