THEATRE / Prince who's fit for a king: Paul Taylor reviews Hamlet at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park. Plus Ibsen in Leeds

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 15 June 1994 23:02

There are some actors who approach the role of Hamlet via a rigorous apprenticeship in parts that have more than a smack of the Prince of Denmark: Konstantin in The Seagull, say, or Oswald in Ghosts. One such is Simon Russell Beale who is to play Hamlet, at long last, for Sam Mendes. At the opposite extreme are those actors who find themselves pitched in at the deep end early in their careers and prove that they can swim with precocious bravura.

At the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, there is now an egregious example of this latter type in Damian Lewis, who tackles the role in Tim Piggott-Smith's otherwise patchy production. Lewis has all the stage presence and captivating instincts of a Michael Sheen. Long-limbed, in a black bum-freezer jacket, he reminds you a little of a Dickensian hero.

The tragedy is played out on a set that looks like some giant piece of modernist garden sculpture, the Danish court imagined as a set of harsh metallic curves. Some of the staging ideas merely have the effect of emphasising the production's weaknesses, so the fussy freeze- frame backdrops which Piggott-Smith contrives for all of Hamlet's soliloquies, seem all too emblematic of the quality-in-balance generally evident - Lewis's Hamlet intensely alive, the rest of the show relatively inert.

To Hamlet's antic disposition, Lewis brings a splendidly intimidating levity which can shade into the potent expression of spiritual disgust. During the 'what a piece of work is man' speech, he pretends to swat an insect on his neck, his disillusion with his species manifest in the fierceness with which he tries to flick the splattered creature from his fingertips.

It's a performance that encompasses not only broad comedy, but also excellent signalling of Hamlet's inner plight. The First Player and the Ghost of old Hamlet are played by the same actor, Kenneth Gilbert, and there's a wonderful moment when Lewis approaches the former in a daze of half-recognition, only to discover that the beard that so reminds him of his father comes off in his hands, a tawdry theatrical prop.

There are one or two notable weak links, and some of the ideas aren't worked out as arrestingly as they might be. But, though the alfresco loveliness of Regent's Park on a glorious evening seems a far cry from Hamlet's sterile promontory and could well be a distraction, Lewis's performance makes sure you see the thematic wood for the trees.

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