THEATRE / Enter the darkest Dane of all: Hamlet - Riverside: Medea - Almeida; Hecuba - Gate; It Runs in the Family - Playhouse; Valentine's Day - Globe

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IT WAS Charles Marowitz in the 1960s who first declared his contempt for Hamlet and made him the laughing stock of Elsinore. He has never been the same again. The Renaissance prince has dwindled into successive postures of alienated futility - though always retaining some of his old glamour. These last shreds have now been struck away by Alan Rickman in a production that comes close to elevating Claudius into the leading role.

The director is the Georgian Robert Sturua, known to British audiences for his ability to involve star actors in the surgical manhandling of classic texts. His Hamlet emerges shorn of many of its best-known lines, with some episodes (the play scene, the duel) drastically abridged, and actors doubling as Claudius and the Ghost (David Burke) and as the Gravedigger and Osric (Timothy Bateson in a bowler and spats). Giorgi Meskhishvili's setting comprises a T-shaped metal observation platform and a downstage burial ground. By such means Denmark becomes more than ever a prison. The East European classical fallout continues. Exactly the same atmosphere was evoked by Sturua's compatriot, Evgueni Arie, in his recent Tel Aviv production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: the morbid mistrust of the outer world, the portrait of a grim, secretive despot (no trace of the 'smiling' villain) with an ingratiatingly demoralised Polonius, chief spymaster, skittering at his heels.

Particular to Sturua is the notion that the past was no better than the present; and that the future - glimpsed in a loutish Fortinbras engaged in casual rape - may be even worse. It also appears from his games with the crown during the paternal leave-taking that the 'faithful and honourable' Polonius has covert plans to put Laertes on the throne. These are not just a director's bright ideas; they generate a pervasive dread (even Gertrude's late arrival throws the Court into panic); while Burke's spasmodically violent King and Michael Byrne's hyena-like Polonius establish an environment where power has displaced all sense of trust.

The obvious casualty is tonal variety. Not only laugh lines, but lightness of any kind is expelled - to the disadvantage of Geraldine McEwan's Gertrude, whose main energy goes into suppressing her high-comedy inflexions. For Rickman's Hamlet, however, the unvaried darkness is a native element. Not a trace remains in him of Ophelia's soldier, scholar, or poet; no flash of wit or good fellowship to suggest his former self. From the start he is devoured by self-loathing, and by a crippling insight into the futility of human endeavour. When he curses his fate after the oath scene, he knows for certain that he is not the man to carry it out.

There is not a single glib or unconsidered inflexion in the performance. Every line has been rethought and comes out of that curdled, feverish intelligence. 'He was a man,' Rickman states bleakly - from which you glean that the dead King was as worthless as the rest. Launching into 'To be or not to be' with a running entrance, he halts dead and then makes an appalled modulation into 'perchance to dream'. I had never thought to be so riveted by that speech again. Although he often overruns full stops, the pace is generally measured, and compels you into an almost physical contact with the sense. But not, alas, with the dramatic narrative; the spiritlessness that settles on Rickman and progressively enfeebles him, cuts him off from the action, turning him almost into a spectator of Burke's disintegrating Claudius, whose story does have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Euripides's Hecuba, writes its translator, Kenneth McLeish, 'belongs to a group of plays ignored by Aristotle: those which explore the character of an individual driven to extreme behaviour by great suffering'. The same goes for his Medea. But from the coincidental revival of these two plays it seems absurdly unjust that Medea should be riding the feminist bandwagon while the other, greater, tragedy remains practically unknown. In outline, their structure is almost identical. But where Medea enjoys a certain moral ambiguity after slaughtering her children, and makes her getaway on a conveniently passing dragon, Hecuba is called to strict account for her act of vengeance. Enslaved by the Greeks only to witness the death of two more of her children, she preserves tragic dignity; but when (unable to harm her real enemies) she blinds and bereaves her false friend, Polymestor, she commits spiritual suicide. The truth strikes across the centuries with the certainty of Polymestor's parting curse.

Such, at least, is the contrast prompted by these two shows. Both approach the texts musically. Jonathan Kent, directing Medea on a percussive metal set with an operatic Chorus leader (Nuala Willis), achieves an effect that seems bloodlessly inexpressive after the gut music of the harmonised Chorus (narrowing to a semitonal shriek for the atrocity) in Laurence Boswell's Hecuba. In Medea a trio of under-characterised males pay court to the heroine: in Hecuba the men are drawn in cunning and passionate depth by Sylvester Morand and Don Warrington. Diana Rigg delivers a vocally resourceful Medea. Ann Mitchell's Hecuba reaches from Troy to Auschwitz.

In It Runs in the Family, John Quayle (playing a nervy neurologist) spends all night vainly trying to get off the stage to deliver a lecture on which his career depends. As this is my own recurring nightmare, I cannot offer a dispassionate opinion on Ray Cooney's farce. You may be tickled to bits by the endless false exits and repartee (Ex-girlfriend: 'I was expecting.' Doctor: 'Expecting what?') Two good things happen at half-time. After a ceaseless flow of craven lies, the spineless victim turns into a high-status trickster whereupon the jokes improve no end. And an apparently senile patient (sublimely played by Henry McGee) is wheeled into the doctors' common room to take his revenge on the profession. A cold-blooded laughter machine finally proves to have its heart in the right place.

Valentine's Day, which I missed at Chichester last year, is a musical of You Never Can Tell with a book by two lovers of Shaw (Benny Green and David William) who have limited themselves to inserting numbers without tampering with the original comedy. Despite his implacable hostility to would-be adapters, Shaw littered this piece with song cues, which are duly snapped up with love duets for Gloria and the Valentine (Alexander Hanson), a progressive education trio for the Clandon family, and a title-point number for the Waiter. As danced by Edward Petherbridge, who is as delicately acrobatic on his feet as he is in serving a round of drinks, this is the best thing in Gillian Lynne's production. The lunch, choreographed for napkins, menus, and cutlery, is another post-Shavian bonus. Otherwise, I do not see what the numbers are for. Denis King's music is just what you might have heard in the Palm Court of Shaw's Marine Hotel; but for that very reason, its effect is to subvert the comedy into vacuous romance, especially as the lyrics specialise in prolonging rhyme-runs at the expense of sense. However, the play survives in the sharp-witted lead performances (Edward de Souza, John Turner); and the general effect, as the Waiter puts it, is 'very bright and pleasant, very gay and innocent indeed'.

'Hamlet': Riverside (081-748 3354). 'Medea': Almeida (071-359 4404). 'Hecuba': Gate (071-229 0706). 'It Runs in the Family': Playhouse (071-839 4401). 'Valentine's Day': Globe (071-494 5040).

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