Theatre: The ghost in the machinery

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The Independent Culture
THE GHOST of Old Hamlet comes in all shapes and sizes. In Richard Eyre's memorable Royal Court staging, the revenant spook emerged, in a gutteral blast, from the cellarage of his son's innards. He didn't exist as an external reality, but as a voice and an imperative inside his heir. I've even seen a Japanese production in which the ghost appeared as a blue lambent flame, darting and teasing like an eschatological Tinkerbell.

For puzzling strangeness, though, the palm must go to the treatment dreamt up by Christopher Geelan's otherwise admirably plain, honest and, therefore, compelling Theatre Unlimited production now playing at Greenwich. Here the ghost is presented as a Chorus of the inhabitants of Elsinore (Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius etc), its voice shifting from one section to another. This approach certainly makes Hamlet's closet scene with Gertrude look a mite overcrowded, and there's none of the wringing pathos that comes from the ghost's closeness to his unwitting former wife.

It may be that I have failed to follow the emotional logic of this interpretation, but, given that we have it on impartial authority that old Hamlet was a most singular man, it seems counterproductive to convey him as though he were the social product of his posterity. A tall lean figure, awkwardly buttoned into a dark modern suit, and given to popping on a pair of heavy framed specs whenever he adopts his whimsically barbed antic disposition, Rupert Wickham's Hamlet is wonderfully fresh and involving. Unlike the personnel of a certain production of Macbeth currently in the West End, Geelan's cast know their way round the shifting sonic architecture of an iambic line. Because of this increasingly rare skill, Wickham, who shifts between passionate intellectual and sardonic alternative comedian, can really engage you in the life of Hamlet's mind.

Theatre Unlimited have a specific remit to reach out to schools and community groups and while they are here, some 19 schools will be performing experimental re-workings of Hamlet under their aegis. The easy thing would have been to create, within budgetary constraints, a production which pander ed to the prejudices of our predominantly visual culture. Instead, the company have had the courage to mount a version in which, as the overwhelmingly teenage audience at the opening night proved, you hang on to every word. A much more stretching, enjoyable and educative experience to be reminded why, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus greets the prospect of the mechanical's amateur dramatics with the now foreign-sounding remark: "I will hear that play." This Hamlet may have its rough and ready aspects and one or two moments where it fails to attend to the implications of the story (would the cagey Claudius really give audience to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Polonius while in the dead-giveaway posture of praying, or trying to, in the chapel?)

But - and this is no mean achievement - it makes you hear this masterpiece as if for the first time.