THEATRE Hamlet Greenwich Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
The standard line on Michael Maloney and Hamlet is to emphasise the number of times he's come within spitting distance of the part (Rosencrantz to Mel Gibson's Dane, Laertes to Branagh's etc). Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. You might conclude from this that his experience has been in unenviable contrast to that of another major Hamlet-in-waiting, Simon Russell Beale. Beale may never have acted in that particular tragedy but he has assumed a number of roles (Konstantin in The Seagull, Oswald in Ghosts) that are the classic dry runs for the Big One.

In fact, as you can see from Maloney's portrayal of Hamlet in Philip Franks's 1950s-set production at Greenwich, certain parts he has played outside of Shakespeare have been the real training - not on the technical level but on the psychological and spiritual plain. Hamlet is the pained possessor of a lonely mercurial genius which phlegmatic actors such as Alan Rickman have been incapable of transmitting. But genius is a phenomenon Maloney, with his quicksilver physicality and darting intelligence, might have been born to convey on stage.

He has the trick of appearing intensely human and yet wired differently so that he picks up stray, distant frequencies inaudible to those around him. One remembers the gently cranky luminosity of his Blake in Jack Shepherd's In Lambeth and how, playing Lewis Carroll at the National, he made that repressed genius's flights of whimsy feel, achingly, like the flipside of a depressive's despair.

In the bamboozling, intellectual waggishness of Maloney's "mad" scenes as Hamlet, you get this Carrollean quality again along with a true sense of danger and unpredictability. It's a performance that also has great stillness and pent-up violence. One of Franks's better staging ideas magnifies our appreciation of this. As the Player King recites the verses about the slaughter of Priam, his thespian colleagues provide a mime of it and rope in Hamlet as the vengeful Pyrrhus. One of the actors works Hamlet's limbs making him, in effect, a puppet playing someone in a parallel position to his own. The imaginary weapon is raised and the moment of suspension stretched to a hallucinatory degree. Before the sword finally plunges, you see in the dizzied intensity of Maloney's expression the profound moral and metaphysical vertigo of this hero's plight.

If the performance falls short of constituting a "great" Hamlet, this is because Maloney has to play off mediocrity or worse. With his vaguely trans-Atlantic drone, weak grasp of prosody and feeble spivvy looks, you feel George Irving's Claudius would find it tough to stay on the payroll of a provincial casino, let alone usurp a throne. Ben Porter's Laertes is indeflectably wooden - no, make that plywooden. The production is still well worth a lookn

Paul Taylor

To 30 Nov. Booking: 0181-858 7755 / 853 3800