More in sorrow than in anger

Hamlet | National Theatre (Lyttleton), London
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Hamlet is famous for putting things off. He's a hero who only gets round to revenging his father when he is himself, ironically, a goner. One was beginning to fear that a similar process of procrastination was going to jeopardise Simon Russell Beale's long-anticipated portrayal of the Black Prince. It's been on the cards now for a decade, ever since his superb RSC performance as Konstantin, the frustrated, Oedipally-harrowed Hamlet manqué in Chekhov's The Seagull. But back injuries postponed the much-flagged production he was to have done for his regular director, Sam Mendes, and then Mendes got caught up in the Oscar circus surrounding American Beauty.

Hamlet is famous for putting things off. He's a hero who only gets round to revenging his father when he is himself, ironically, a goner. One was beginning to fear that a similar process of procrastination was going to jeopardise Simon Russell Beale's long-anticipated portrayal of the Black Prince. It's been on the cards now for a decade, ever since his superb RSC performance as Konstantin, the frustrated, Oedipally-harrowed Hamlet manqué in Chekhov's The Seagull. But back injuries postponed the much-flagged production he was to have done for his regular director, Sam Mendes, and then Mendes got caught up in the Oscar circus surrounding American Beauty.

Last night, though, Beale finally embraced his destiny on the Lyttelton stage in a new production by John Caird, and it's a relief to report that his performance is well worth the wait. Beale must weigh in as one the plumpest Hamlets on record (one review of the pre-London tour was headlined "Tubby or Not Tubby, Fat is the Question"), and in many of his past performances, the discrepancy between his blubbery body and an innate refinement of feeling and intellect has helped him to project a powerful Hamlet-like sense of prickly alienation and self-disgust.

The odd thing, though, is that his Hamlet is not at all "Hamlet-like" in those terms. It's an aching regret for the world that might have been, rather than a seething contempt for the world that exists, that characterises his tremendously moving and crystal-clear portrayal. A defining moment comes in the normally turbulent closet scene, when this Hamlet finds himself touched simultaneously by the hands of his mother and his ghostly father. For a piercing moment, the original prelapsarian family unit is spectrally reconstituted, and you can see Beale experience a tiny respite of blissful, illusory peace.

This is a man driven more by a little boy's nostalgic neediness than by vengeance. It's typical that minutes after delivering the bitterly disillusioned "What a piece of work is man!" speech, Beale's hero can do a double-take of unaffected delight on noticing that one of his friends in the newly arrived troupe of actors is pregnant. And when he returns from England, I have never witnessed a Hamlet who radiates such a shyly gracious, autumnal acceptance of the mystery of life and of fate.

Dying, he walks towards the audience, painfully aware he still has so much to say and no time in which to say it. The sense of tragic waste is all the more shattering because Beale is superbly alert to the wry, courageous wit that never deserts this hero even in extremis. It's the joky finger he wags on the line "as this fell sergeant death/ Is strict in his arrest" that reduces this critic to tears. It has to be said, though, that Caird's apolitical, "cosmic drama"-style production doesn't give Beale's Hamlet much to be alienated from.

There's something insufficiently rotten in the state of this Denmark which, given that the Fortinbras bits have been cut, is not at risk from external threat. Suggested by configurations of trunks and packing cases, the churchy, candle-lit court of Elsinore is awash with soulful choral music and governed by a vapid Claudius (Peter McEnery) who, for all the ambition and corruption he evinces, could have killed old Hamlet in a forgivable fit of inadvertence. Determined to see the best in everybody, Caird levels the harsh declivities in this landscape. A wonderful Hamlet is constrained by a sentimentalised conception of the play.

* To 12 Sept (020-7452 3000); then touring to the Brighton Theatre Royal (18-23 Sept, 01273 328488); the Theatre Royal, Glasgow (26-30 Sept, 0141-332 9000); the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin (3-7 Oct, 00 353 1 677 1717); after which the production returns to the Lyttleton (from 13 Oct). A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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