Hamlet, Royal Theatre, Northampton

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Hamlet is King of Denmark. Only his inability to bear the knife renders him a rogue and peasant slave; unlike Michael Shaeffer's thrusting Laertes, who looks a natural heir apparent, this jilted king lacks the stomach to mount a coup.

Hamlet is King of Denmark. Only his inability to bear the knife renders him a rogue and peasant slave; unlike Michael Shaeffer's thrusting Laertes, who looks a natural heir apparent, this jilted king lacks the stomach to mount a coup.

Tobias Menzies - Rupert Goold's inspired casting as Hamlet - slithers around the stage in a scanty dress, enjoying his antic disposition. He plays the fool dazzlingly: a stage natural. But it's his meeting with Dominic Colchester's Player King that brings his Hamlet to maturity. Suicide may smell sweet; revenge ranks sweeter. With Hamlet's Pyrrhus speech - prescient of the final carnage as well as a nasty foretaste of Gonzago's murder - this simmering Hamlet comes to the boil.

But it begins with music-hall; Jane Birkin (Gertrude) astride a piano, crooning to Hilton McRae (Claudius) in an eerie pre-echo/send-up of Ophelia's Valentine song.

Laura Hopkins's set is like a mirrored extension of the 1884 Royal Theatre itself, decor, circle tier and all. We're not peeking; we're part of it.

The result is amazingly intimate. Goold lets the action spill almost spontaneously down the stage. Key exchanges - Polonius and Laertes; Hamlet and the Players; Hamlet poised to shoot Claudius; the Gravediggers (played by Polonius and Ophelia in this production of deliberately unnerving doublings) - play front-of-proscenium on the Royal's ample apron.

Birkin speaks softly and gets away with it. Little whispers resonate. Fingering pearls, she does sexy victimhood marvellously. Flitting about her boudoir, she's on stage during the chapel scene (yet another eerie juxtaposition). McRae, eyeing himself in her mirror, or at Ophelia's Vettriano-look funeral, garbles the odd line. But Claudius doubles as the Ghost - scary - and you get every syllable of that. The poisoner who can polish off his brother-monarch has few qualms in near-drowning Hamlet front-stage: real water, real choking. Naught by halves.

One is tempted to dub this staging sensational. We'll miss the Royal during its closure. If the odd corner creaked - I simply didn't believe Ophelia's (Poppy Miller) unprepared ditty-prone madness, or her attempted kiss and prim-dress demureness - there is invention everywhere. It's a brilliant use of a space.

Menzies's performance is a triumph. He gives it everything, even the fight. Maybe he soaks, snuffles and sneers almost too much. "Cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right." He skews it all, of course. But that's Hamlet.

To 3 April (01604 624 811)

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