Hamlet - Barbican Theatre 1998

Friday, 02 January, 1998

So, purists beware. If you can live with this, what you get is a stunning, intense drama of a young man grappling with what fate has handed down to him. The production has a filmic feel, reminiscent of the narrative thrust of the Godfather. There's a lot of emphasis on the struggle of the young against their elders. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are badly damaged by their families and its just lucky for Hamlet that he can grow psychologically, whereas she is too badly trapped to survive. Hamlet's disgust at the thought of his mother having sex with Claudius is certainly not part of an Oedipus complex, more that of an incredulous teenager horrified that anyone middle-aged should even think of such a thing.

What you also get is a brilliant central performance by Alex Jennings. The production helps him in the opening scene where he stands silently scattering his father's ashes, to the backdrop of a home movie of both of them playing in the snow. This and the wedding party scene gives you so much of what this Hamlet is: a young man desperate in the loss of his father, dismayed by the behaviour of his mother, immature, disaffected, clever, ironic, funny. Galvanised by the ghost, his manic nervous energy is translated into an explosion of words rather than action. After his return from England, more grown up and richer in self knowledge, he hands himself over to fate rather than revenge, in a brilliantly realised and very moving death scene.

Jennings conveys all of this in a magnificent tour de force of verse speaking. He's a brilliant master of Shakespeare's verse and here in a deliberately down-beat conversational tone he makes every thought crystal clear as if newly minted, so that both the sense and the beauty of the poetry shine through.

Unfortunately, most of the other characters suffer more as a result of the directorial pruning, in that they act primarily as foils to Hamlet. Paul Freeman does manage to give a clear sense of Claudius, a successful and popular king, so near the edge that its clear that his deeds will drag him down even if Hamlet fails to do so. Susannah York as Gertrude works best when her son forces her to realise just what she has done. Derbhle Crotty is given a difficult task as Ophelia who, in this production, is robbed of much of her context in the early action and has to play the 'nunnery' scene almost from cold. Her madness is both affecting and moving in a very contemporary way. Horatio's part probably suffers most yet Colin Hurley achieves a lot while saying little. Edward Petherbridge is a super ghost, full of pathos, especially in his silk pyjamas and dressing gown in the bedroom scene!

So, a Hamlet for the open-minded if not for the faint-hearted. It is highly recommended as not the definitive production but as an honourable and exciting attempt to gain insight into part of this most elusive of masterpieces.

(Ann O'Brien)

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