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Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon


David Farr's new take on Hamlet takes place in what looks like the fencing gym of a run-down public school.

Steadfastly unheeded over the institutional stage (a handy space for the Mousetrap performance) is that demoralising cold bath of a motto “Mens sana in corpore sano”. For the final act, heavies cart away the parquet floor in sections, leaving a raw expanse of earth for the gravediggers, the botched burial of Ophelia and climactic duel. 

Before that, though, in narrative terms, it remains a real puzzle as to why the proceedings are trapped in the sports hall. The only explanation that I could come up with is the change of King has resulted in wholesale redecoration of the rest of the palace at Elsinore. Perhaps old Hamlet swore by beige, whereas new broom Claudius is a man who likes to think pink. Hence the evacuation of the court.

Of course, on the level of symbolism, it's a different matter. There's a sort of “In my beginning is my end” feel here, the tragedy sucked inexorably to what, in scenic terms, is registered from the outset as a foregone conclusion. No one could accuse Jonathan Slinger, Farr's Hamlet, of being cursed with blandly romantic leading-man looks (it would be like berating Donald Duck for being soporifically swanlike) and in his suit and glasses at the start he's more nerdy middle-management that princely permanent-undergraduate. But then, the setting allows him to reel around in a disarrayed fencing outfit that resembles a dangling, half-done-up straitjacket, like a calculated provocation to those who would prefer to think him mad.

At first, I found his performance grating to a degree. He has virtuosic vocal range that can move between mock-falsetto to a resonant subterranean dungeon of a sound. And, boy, does he let you know this in an oh-so-slow delivery of the earlier soliloquies where you could drive a bus through the pauses and where he seems to atomise the speeches a series of discrete effects. 

What epitomises a production that I came to admire (Pippa Nixon's Ophelia who, heart-rendingly, performs the mad scene in pristine white bridal dress and veil, is stunning) is contained in the unusual stress-pattern Slinger gives to the play's most famous line: “To be or not to be, that is the question”.  The implication is “there have been umpteen Hamlets before me and do you know they were right on this issue”.  It's a measure of how Farr's production, which has a wild inventiveness, perhaps too much requires a familiarity with this tragedy.

To 28 Sept; 0844 800 1110