Theatre: Something's rotten in the state of Denmark plc

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When Michael Maloney tried to chat up Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply, hopping beside her as she walked along the South Bank, the puppyish qualities he had to offer were sincerity, eagerness and a slightly loopy energy. He was sweet in a very self-conscious way. This week Maloney's Hamlet opens at Greenwich. Given the kind of casual, engagingly contemporary qualities that Maloney possesses, director Philip Franks took exactly the wrong decision in setting his production in modern dress.

Instead of balancing out what Maloney has to bring, it reiterates it, narrowing the play's range. The courtiers in their suits look like middle- ranking executives at Denmark plc. Queen Gertrude (Dinah Stabb) dresses like a South Kensington mum. The champagne glasses handed round in the early court scene suggest a drinks party. Intelligent, neurotic, gesticulative: you could imagine seeing Maloney's all-too-plausible Hamlet sitting in Pizza Express.

He doesn't impress us with his nobility or princeliness. Franks could have given Maloney a context and period that heightened social distinctions - that set him apart from others, giving him the kind of royal edge that enables him to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths without letting it trouble his conscience.

Modern-dress productions trip up when the specifics jar with the text. When Ophelia (Zoe Waites, making her professional debut) goes to see Polonius (an impressively precise Clifford Rose) he fiddles around with papers in his filing cabinet. She tells him she's just seen Hamlet with his doublet "unbraced" and stockings "downgyved". There's 400 years between the doublet and the filing cabinet.

When a callow Laertes (Ben Porter) pulls a revolver on a drearily downbeat and nasal Claudius (George Irving) - who looks as if he's attended too many board meetings - the moment has the hollow brittleness of melodrama. Firearms may be available, but Hamlet and Laertes resolve their differences, rather quaintly, with rapiers (well-staged by Malcolm Ransom). Fencing, it transpires, is a favourite hobby of this modern-day Hamlet.

If the political and social dimensions of Hamlet shrink with the transposition, in Franks's production the psychological journey still emerges as fresh and moving. From his first dark-suited appearance, when he glowers in the corner like a satanic valet, Maloney convinces us that he is overwhelmed by the trauma of his father's death. With gleaming eyes, thinning hair swept back, he hurries round Julian McGowan's stark, dark set with a hectic energy. After the appearance of his father's ghost, Maloney's clothes sense deteriorates as rapidly as his state of mind. His baggy sweater has a huge hole, his hair stands on end, and his shirt-tails hang out. By the time the players arrive, his "antic disposition" is on the rampage. No one can contain him. It's only after he returns from England that he acquires a new, absorbing resolve. In one of many insightful moments, Maloney questions the gravedigger with real curiosity.

This is a performer who handles the verse expertly, though he likes to think before he speaks. After performing a speech for Hamlet, the players leave. Polonius leaves. Ham- let sits on a chair. Significant pause. Maloney speaks. "Now I am alone." We know.

After long, drink-sodden evenings spent in the company of Albee or O'Neill characters it's a pleasure watching Anthony Page's fascinating production of A Doll's House, to see how skilfully Ibsen gets his characters to talk without first having to ply them with half-a-dozen bourbons.

In Page's production, translated by Frank McGuinness, the scorchingly frank discussion that takes place between Nora and Torvald Helmers after the Boxing Day dance marks a riveting change of tone from the helter-skelter activity that has preceded it.

Earlier on, Janet McTeer has been a breathtakingly busy Nora. She has flicked her waist-length blonde hair back and forth, gasped, giggled and squeaked. She has puckered her lips, tossed her head and widened her eyes. She has flapped the air, tugged at her ear, and fingered her forehead. Moment after moment - second after second, in fact - McTeer has filled Nora out with the most emotionally physical vocabulary available to an actress, short, that is, of actually delivering the performance in sign language. And it works. It makes sense.

McTeer's Nora tries very hard to be a wife and mother. Only after her husband lets her down in a moment of crisis does she replace flighty falseness with straight-talking. As her husband, Owen Teale excellently catches the warm, attractive, upright figure who has no idea how deeply patronising he is (his wife is his "prize possession"). When this couple split, it is all the more powerful for having sprung from this desperately cheerful froth.

Edward Bond's new play In The Company of Men, which the author directs, and which marks his return to the RSC, is set in the present and takes place in the City. But anyone expecting detailed insights into the world of high finance will be spending three hours and 45 minutes in the wrong venue. Bond doesn't burden us with his research trips. The one place where In The Company of Men can identifiably be located is within Bond's own moral imagination.

In this capacious world, a young, sullen, enigmatic son (John Light) can demand from his adopted father (Karl Johnson) that he wants to be managing director of his arms-manufacturing company. When John- son refuses, Light joins forces with the opposition, in the shape of the bluffly cynical David Ryall, who looks forward to the next century when big business will be able to link food sales with arms sales.

Opaque windows, wooden-plank floors, minimum furniture: the unremitting spareness of Bond's production contrasts dramatically with the semi-poetic loquaciousness of the characters. The ex-public- school failure, Wilbraham (played with fruity self-loathing by Richard Cordery), cannot mention his school without painting in the details: "Cut lawns - oak panels - mullioned windows," etc. The play has rightly been described as a meditation. On stage, these thoughts border on the sententious. "Our friendship's based on betrayal. Not many friends have such a solid base." Or: "Two things you mustn't trust: God and servants." After an hour I felt like Laertes, down at the quayside, getting buttonholed by a modern-day Polonius.

Theatre details: Going Out, p14.

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