The play's the thing - at least, I think so

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The Independent Online

I had a small moment of enlightenment the other day. I think I finally saw the point of Shakespeare. Don't get me wrong. I knew what he was about before that. Had I not spent long periods being taught what Shakespeare was about? It was about passing exams. I studied Macbeth so hard for A-level that I knew the play more or less by heart and there are still stretches I can quote by heart. Well, more isolated lines, really, which have a habit of coagulating in my mind to produce new speeches unknown to the Bard...

We have scotched the snake, not killed it.

Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear

- Is this a dagger that I see before me?

It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.

Aye, there's a knocking! etc etc etc.

And since then, I have steered my way through life seeing my ration of Shakespeare here and there. I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream and A Comedy of Errors at the Aldwych long ago, and Richard Briers as King Lear less long ago, and I once saw Emma Thompson as the Fool in Lear, who I thought was odd but my wife said was wonderful (and she knows all about the theatre); and years ago I even saw the Russian film of Hamlet which must have impressed me powerfully, because to this day I can remember the name of the lead actor (Innokenti Smoktunovsky?).

But I don't think I ever really saw what Shakespeare was all about. I heard the words and their magic, and sometimes caught the drift for a while, but then, like a foreign radio programme going slightly off station, it would lose me and I would fall behind, like the tired member of an expedition. If you can't keep up, we won't wait for you, that's what Shakespeare says. Bit like Baden Powell. Make your own way home if you can't keep up. Take your wife if it helps.

Of course, I would never tell my son any of this. He is 17 and A-levels are looming. He can't afford to have a father who gets lost in Shakespeare and has to be rescued by his wife. The other night, he and his school went to the theatre to seeHamlet. "I'll need to be picked up from the theatre at 11 pm," he said.

"Tell you what," said my wife. "Why don't we get tickets and see the play ourselves? Then we'll be there to pick him up."

So we went last Tuesday night to see Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Bath and watched Michael Maloney as Hamlet, in a production by Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, with extraordinary Japanese visual overtones. And I have to record that for the first time in my life I was absolutely blown away by a Shakespeare play.

For the first time ever, I seemed to follow the words without difficulty. They took wing and flew, but they made clear sense as well. I realised that although I knew lots of bits of Hamlet, I had no idea in which order they came. But I also have to say that I approve of the order in which Shakespeare has put them.

By Maloney, I was totally convinced. Every twitch of his features, every sudden smile, every grave moment, seemed just right. I could hear people round me whispering dispassionate judgements from time to time ("Ophelia's VERY good"... "He's not quite young enough for a student, really" ... "Why the Japanese armour?") but I was in no mood for explaining things or looking at the way it was done. I was just transfixed. So was my wife. She said as we left: "We were very lucky to be there to see that".

We picked up our son, and drove home. "What did you think of it?", said mother. "It was all right," he said; "but a bit too minimalist for me."

It's the kind of attitude I would have adopted at his age. So there's hope for him yet.