Hamlet, Old Vic, London

Rhoda Koenig
Friday 30 April 2004 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Set in the present, Trevor Nunn's "Hamlet for our time", his second production of the tragedy, may delight those in the audience who think they've never had it so good. Those who look at our age and see self-indulgence, blandness, and hypocrisy everywhere may think otherwise.

The accent is on youth here, with several actors hardly out of drama school. But immaturity is the byword, not only in the neophytes but in the more seasoned players. At her wedding feast, Imogen Stubbs's Gertrude comically feigns collapse when the speeches end, and makes a great show of simpering embarrassment. Stubbs could still easily play Ophelia, but, like her character (who has been Queen of Denmark half her life), she is old enough to have a son at university. What's with the cuddly-bunny act?

Ben Whishaw's Hamlet shows intelligence and sensitivity in the contemplative moments of the part - his best soliloquy is "What a piece of work is a man." But his lines are frequently unintelligible, and his demeanour is that of sullen adolescent rather than proud prince. Slouching into the court in black shirt and drainpipe trousers, his black woolly hat pulled low, he drags a chair off to one side and faces away from the company, wrapping his arms round himself and letting his splayed fingers creep up and down his torso. It's not a sight that gives one much confidence in Hamlet as witty schemer or bold avenger. Indeed, this weedy, highly vulnerable Hamlet, his clothes as carefully askew as those of a public-school boy on his way home, could be illustrating the notions, as false as they are common, that the prince is weak and indecisive, and that he is mad or feigns madness.

The actors may dress in tennis whites or jeans, but their castle, apart from a few tacky furnishings, hasn't had a modern makeover. John Gunter's Elsinore is a forbidding one of high, dark walls, on which, oddly for such an up-to-date version, we see enormous shadows of the players in the intimate scenes - a "picturesque" effect that was old-fashioned before the movies could talk.

One of our best Shakespearean actors, Tom Mannion speaks the verse better than anyone on stage, but his Claudius, far too obviously phony and slick, lacks colour, as well as threat. Likewise, Nicholas Jones, also a pleasure to hear, is a comically pompous Polonius, but far too benign. Mannion doubles as the Ghost, an interesting idea that doesn't pay off, especially not in a revelation scene, with both actors sitting down, that is devoid of any excitement.

Nunn has usefully moved the "To be or not to be" soliloquy to a more dramatically logical point, but he has also introduced (silent) scenes that were never in the play: Hamlet bursting into Ophelia's room while she gyrates to a pop tune, the bloodied body of Polonius is wheeled out for her observation. What's the point of this unnecessary explicitness?

To 31 July (0870 060 6628)

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