Hamlet, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Miller chooses poetry over passion in his careful tragedy
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The Independent Culture

As Kate Bassett is writing a biography of Jonathan Miller, she has recused herself from his latest Hamlet. It's one which not only shows the result of a great deal of thought, but shows the characters thinking. While Jamie Ballard's Hamlet listens to the players, we can see him forming the idea of having them portray a murder to expose his treacherous uncle. The production is full of such telling detail, and every syllable of the verse is intelligible and meaningfully inflected. This clarity, together with the sober Elizabethan costumes, makes it an ideal beginner's Hamlet. But, if everything here is done well, the production does not do enough – for the most part, it feels like an exemplary lesson in stagecraft rather than a vision of life unfolding. Caution is the keynote, rather than passion or ease.

This is most noticeable in Jay Villiers's appealing but passive Claudius, a murderer so weighed down by guilt that, instead of angrily striding from the murder play, he sleepwalks his way out. It's a movement that, while psychologically acute, dissipates the building tension. In Gertrude's closet, Francesca Ryan's rather stolid queen, instead of partnering Hamlet in a crazed emotional pas de deux, is a spectator to his anguish, which is more tantrum than frenzy. And Ballard, biting his nails, making silly faces, and choking back angry tears, isn't fearsome or noble enough. Oliver Le Sueur, doing too many favours to that little creep Laertes, cuts a more princely figure.

Though Annabel Scholey is too self-confident an Ophelia, her mixture of lewdness and childish self-absorption create a painful, touching mad scene. The final slaughter is also impressive, with the dying king embittering Hamlet's last moments by dragging himself across the floor to clutch the hand of his dying queen. Roland Oliver's Polonius is a powerfully chilling portrayal of cold-hearted, smiling villainy – though I was startled on his first entrance and amused thereafter by the grey, mandarin whiskers that make this paunchy actor the image of Miller's not-quite-best-friend Peter Hall.



To 3 May; www.sattf.org.uk (01179 633054).

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