Hamlet, Courtyard, Stratford

David Tennant temporarily swaps the Tardis for the RSC stage and excels himself in one of Shakespeare's greatest roles
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The Independent Culture

If you've been holidaying in a particularly distant galaxy, it's just possible you haven't heard that Doctor Who is regenerating into the Prince of Denmark. Yes, the RSC's new production of Hamlet has caused a frenzy of media excitement because David Tennant – taking the title role – is, of course, the TV Time Lord. Furthermore, in an uncanny congress of sci-fi stars, Patrick Stewart is cast as both the usurping fratricide, Claudius, and his revenant brother, Old Hamlet. Some have duly wondered if Elsinore is to resemble the Tardis or the Starship Enterprise.

Well, it must be said, the costumes in Gregory Doran's staging suggest time travel gone crazy. The courtiers sport everything from hacking jackets and jeans to Tudor cloaks, with one pageboy appearing to have slipped through a wormhole from the 18th century.

The company gets away with this because royal palaces are a bit of a fancy-dress box, and the set has contrasting austere simplicity. A wall of dark mirrors towers over a jet-black stage. The half-silvered glass serves for surveillance, while on its reflective surface shimmer eerie doubles of everybody, including the encircling audience. That's perfectly suited to a drama where the hero is famously in two minds and obsessed with theatrical counterfeits.

The great news is that this is a fine Hamlet. Doran is on top form exploring the idea of riven personalities, vacillations and dysfunctional inertia. Tennant excels himself, looking like a scruffy teen in a skeleton-print T-shirt. As the wavering avenger, he is clearly debilitated by the mixed messages he receives from his parents.

Having previously played the fool Touchstone, his half-mad clown-prince has sharp comic timing. When storming out of The Mousetrap, Claudius interrogatively shines the lamp he has grabbed on his lolling nephew who grins back, suddenly pulling a face like a gaping skull.

Tennant's grief-stricken soliloquies are still more noteworthy. Refreshingly unaffected, his "To be or not to be" is not overintellectual but exhausted. The brain is still working but the body is in shock after the Ghost's revelations. He stands swaying as if on the edge of a cliff. Eyes closed, he is dreaming of the relief of felo de se – "to die, to sleep".

It is slightly hard to take Stewart's paranormal Old Hamlet seriously. The spectre looks as if he's furtively defying a smoking ban, leaking dry ice from the sleeves of his greatcoat. Nonetheless, he smoulders with rage impressively. Oliver Ford Davies is perfect as Polonius, a deceptively cuddly but crushing patriarch, and Penny Downie superbly charts Gertrude's own painful maturation, from smiling socialite to quiet suicide – knowing the chalice is poisoned.

'Hamlet' (0844 800 1110) to 15 Nov

Need to know

Anyone who heard the inane debate on Radio 4's 'Today' last week about whether TV actors could cross over into theatre might imagine David Tennant had never been on the stage before. In fact, he began his career treading the boards and joined the RSC in 1996, age 25. He played a much admired Romeo in 2000 (above) and in 2005 was acclaimed in a new production of 'Look Back in Anger' as one of the best Jimmy Porters ever. Is it any wonder he takes Hamlet in his stride?