A Dane for all seasons

Japanese, fundamentalist, grungy - Shakespeare's prince seems to encourage radical reinventions. Paul Taylor looks at the latest addition to the canon, Michael Boyd's RSC production of Hamlet
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The Independent Culture

What is the collective noun for productions of Hamlet? A brood, perhaps? There has certainly been a brood and a half in the past 12 months. At Edinburgh, the Catalan director Calixto Bieito gave us an anarchically slashed-about version that reimagined Elsinore as a sleazy modern nightclub called the Palace. Jonathan Kent brought his visually ravishing all-male Japanese staging to Sadler's Wells. And Trevor Nunn's youth-oriented production at the Old Vic presented the hero as a skinny, vulnerable modern kid, sulking in his beanie. At the Riverside Studios, in west London, there was The Al-Hamlet Summit, an intriguing Arabic adaptation, transposed to a 21st-century Middle Eastern state ruled by a Westernised, dollar-worshipping usurper, in which Hamlet returned from the voyage to England as an Islamic fundamentalist and Ophelia cracked up and became a suicide bomber.

What is the collective noun for productions of Hamlet? A brood, perhaps? There has certainly been a brood and a half in the past 12 months. At Edinburgh, the Catalan director Calixto Bieito gave us an anarchically slashed-about version that reimagined Elsinore as a sleazy modern nightclub called the Palace. Jonathan Kent brought his visually ravishing all-male Japanese staging to Sadler's Wells. And Trevor Nunn's youth-oriented production at the Old Vic presented the hero as a skinny, vulnerable modern kid, sulking in his beanie. At the Riverside Studios, in west London, there was The Al-Hamlet Summit, an intriguing Arabic adaptation, transposed to a 21st-century Middle Eastern state ruled by a Westernised, dollar-worshipping usurper, in which Hamlet returned from the voyage to England as an Islamic fundamentalist and Ophelia cracked up and became a suicide bomber.

And now, in his long-awaited first production as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd engages with the Great Dane as his contribution to this year's festival season of four tragedies. The result is a powerful but strangely divided affair: a fluent, intelligently politicised account of the piece, in Elizabethan dress, with a startlingly old-fashioned performance from Toby Stephens at its centre. If Boyd takes the unfashionable approach of attending to the historical circumstances at the time of the play's composition, his leading performer reverts to the past in a different and less considered manner, taking to the stage as though he were some throwback Victorian tragedy-king.

I talked to Boyd, during rehearsals, about the thinking behind the production. A forthright Scot, he expatiates on his ideas with a huge, enlivening confidence, his discourse peppered with graphic turns of phrase, as when he declares that one good reason for setting the play in the Elizabethan period is that it "enables you to dramatise the goat-like tetheredness" of the father-dominated Ophelia. He's profligate with shrewd insights, pointing out, for example, that "the show trial of a duel at the end is Claudius' reply to the play-within-the-play that Hamlet had used to bait him. It could not be more OK Corral-esque." Both of those episodes are superbly staged.

One of the most striking features of the production is Greg Hicks's splendid, nightmarish ghost. Instead of the usual stern but fatherly figure, in the "fair and warlike form" of his living self, old Hamlet here hauls himself into the play as a bowed, deathly-white, half-naked spook, with hollow red sockets for eyes, scraping his broadsword along the ground to nerve-shatteringly ominous effect. He hawks up his speeches in an agonised vomit of vengefulness. That he seems to hail from an alien belief system as well as from another world is entirely deliberate.

By the time Hamlet was written and performed, the concept of purgatory had been discredited as a Catholic invention and a money-making racket designed to line the coffers of the papacy. Boyd has been inspired by Stephen Greenblatt's recent book Hamlet in Purgatory, which highlights the tragedy's unsettling premise: "A young man from Wittenberg, with a distinctly Protestant temperament, is haunted by a distinctly Catholic ghost." Or, as the director puts it, "There has been a political and intellectual revolution, and then Hamlet re-encounters the past in the shape of his father's spirit and has to negotiate with it."

By making the ghost such an overt manifestation of discarded doctrine, the production intensifies the sense of the hero's dilemma. The idea of Purgatory gave the living the consolation of feeling that they could do something for the dead, but as evidence for its existence, the ghost is decidedly dubious. What penitential spirit could possibly demand the sin of blood vengeance from his child? "Henry VII set up gazillions of monasteries and chantries to pray for the souls in purgatory," Boyd points out. "Then his son came along and knocked them down." That's the highly symbolic cultural background, he suggests, to the father-son, Catholic-Protestant divide in the play.

In the late 1970s, Boyd was a trainee director at Malaya Bronnaya, in Moscow. His experiences in the Soviet system sensitised him, he reveals, to the way "Shakespeare was forced to talk in code in Hamlet by the Elizabethan KGB". He recalls that in every rehearsal room in Moscow, there was an informer. It taught him that spies (just like Polonius) can be "dangerous and risible - the two are not mutually exclusive". He also knew a Rosencrantz: "a lovely, friendly guy - a painter who claimed to be under all sorts of restrictions and yet had really a rather nice studio on the south bank of the Moscow river and Finnish beer and Irish ham and well-dressed women".

The production's evocation of a repressive new regime and its surveillance network is all the more effective for being so stealthy and unforced. There's a horribly disturbing moment at the point in the play-within-the-play when Lucianus, the poisoner and Claudius-counterpart, makes his entrance, and suddenly armed guards materialise from nowhere, poised to pounce on evidently anticipated protest. Outwardly a beaming baby of a man, Richard Cordery's finely judged Polonius is so ingrained in the habits of a spymaster general that, even in private, he talks to his daughter about Hamlet like one secret agent briefing another in public, sidling up to her, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

The strain of being his child seems to have induced in Meg Fraser's odd but persuasive Ophelia an unusual stillness and containment. In her excellent mad scene, suppressed anarchy erupts through a persistent façade of normality in quick, barmy, misogynistic gestures, such as pulling up the skirts of an appalled lady-in-waiting to illustrate one of the bawdy songs. The wooden, drum-like surround of Tom Piper's design is rich in slits that can be used for eavesdropping, and it's a gruesomely apt touch here that when Polonius is slain through one of them, the sword stabs him in the eyes.

All these details whirl round the hub of a performance by Stephens that excites decidedly mixed feelings. We've become used to egalitarian Hamlets who don't pull rank. Stephens is an angrily arrogant Prince, and he never lets us forget it. Patrician disgust contorts his cruelly handsome features. The auburn locks are tossed. The nostrils flare. The lip curls. A commentator in another newspaper has made a desperate attempt to suggest that this is a Hamlet for the Eminem generation: "in a world so contemptible, contempt is admirable". From where I was sitting, it just looked like a performer stuck in a weird time-warp of outmoded heroic acting.

There's certainly glamour, a sneering sardonic humour and a furious, frustrated rage in his portrayal. But there's a worrying deficiency of inwardness, intimacy and stillness. In Hamlet, we are given privileged, flattering access to an extraordinary, speculative mind. It's a source of profound satisfaction, and of pain at the end, that we know more about him than anyone on stage.

There's a strange contradiction, though, in Stephens's performance. There seems to be both a haughty reserve that keeps us at a distance during the soliloquies, and an absence of inner mystery to tempt our curiosity in the first place. The best Hamlets (Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale) have the gift of quiet spiritual rapport with an audience: we get glimpses into their soul. Though his verse-speaking is always quick-witted, Stephens goes for effects that sound too rhetorical and premeditated to induce a feeling of closeness. Even in the climactic speech about the "special providence in the fall of the sparrow", he addresses Horatio as though his friend were on the other side of some footlights. You feel that this Hamlet is flattering himself when he claims: "I have that within which passes show."

The irony is that, with his frightfully pukka delivery and actorish manner, Stephens's hero seems to be of an older stylistic vintage than anyone else on stage. Apart, of course, from the ghost. But wouldn't that problematic cultural shift between father and son, which Boyd valuably underlines here with the emphasis on Purgatory, be better communicated with a cooler, more progressive protagonist? Thought-provoking, well-paced and exuding an atmosphere of jumpy menace, this is a worthwhile evening - though a Hamlet without the full Prince.

'Hamlet', Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 609 1110) to 2 October; 'Hamlet', Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628) to 15 January

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