First Night: Hamlet, Sheffield Crucible

Smooth transfer from 'Life on Mars' to death in Denmark
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The Independent Culture

He's scarcely princely and anything but regal. But John Simm's Prince of Denmark has all the indications of a troubled young man, an outsider who's used to considering his inner thoughts. He's a bit of a misfit, just as he is as Inspector Tyler in Life on Mars, whose huge, mainly female, fanbase turned out to cheer him to the rafters in his first professional Shakespeare role.

Shakespeare aficionados or first-timers, they are treated to a touchingly boyish Hamlet, in an interpretation of this enigmatic role in which Simm's gestures are slight, his acting never over-emphatic and his face always just one grimace away, it seemed, from morphing into a potato.

That face, looking as if he really had been tweaked by the nose, goes through its own enlightenment in the course of the play – puzzled, petulant, perplexed, peevish, piqued and, just now and then, a little perky. And what a relief to hear such clear, unforced verse-speaking – to be able to appreciate the words as well as the rhythm – and to hear the soliloquies delivered, as the essential pillars to the structure that they are, without self-conscious artfulness.

The unshowy, northern-born-and-bred Simm knows how to convey an awkward interior life with ease, to play the tormented loner with a quietly biting, ironic wit. Not for him the slightly surreal air that saw David Tennant face the same dilemma of being judged as a celebrity-turned-serious Shakespearean. Simm needn't fear comparisons with all the current and previous inhabitants of the role. Just watch his body language.

But it's not all due to Simm that Paul Miller's minimalist production proves so enthralling, presented in his own version. John Nettles spent six seasons with the RSC, which experience informs his reading of Claudius as the sort of twinkly-eyed but slightly sinister uncle who turns a bit loopy and then a bit nasty when things don't go his way. Nettles, doubling as a strangled, croaking Ghost, and Hugh Ross's comic and pedantic Polonius (and West Country Gravedigger) bring their own insights to a production that enjoys the luxury of Barbara Flynn as a Gertrude who looks on, and on, but sees little until too late, and an English-rose type Ophelia in Michelle Dockery descending movingly into mental turmoil.

On Tom Scutt's minimalist set silvery birch trunks, at times sprinkled with snow, add atmosphere to what Miller has described as the show's timeless but vaguely 19th-century Eastern European setting. The evocative music and sound by Ben and Max Ringham give a dreamlike, Russian flavour, the play-within-a-play underscored by melancholy piano.

At the first scene change, windows drop down encasing a chandeliered court state-room in which, later, the book-lined shelves are replaced, for Gertrude's closet scene, by shelves of shoes and a fitted wardrobe in which hangs a stack of floaty designer dresses. Only after

an hour and a half do any props appear. This production requires a lot of sturdy legwork and careful choreography from a cast required to pace itself around the Crucible's big empty stage. No gimmicks, no quirkiness – unless you count Simm's unaccountably engaging, weasel-like face – just a thoughtful Hamlet that draws you inexorably into its tragedy.

Next week it is the National Theatre's turn to stage the play. Their Hamlet, Rory Kinnear, has a hard act to follow.