What do you do with someone who's mad? Well in the Denmark described by Shakespeare, they had the perfect remedy: send him to England where his madness won't be noticed much. Current commentators might nod in cynical agreement.
The madness in this Shakespearian tragedy is that of Hamlet, Price of Denmark. Hamlet's father, King of Denmark, has recently died. But soldiers on night watch have seen an apparition whom they believe is the ghost of the dead King. So Hamlet is called to the watch tower to see what's afoot. Sure enough, the apparition is his father, and tells Hamlet (already in a grief-stricken state) how he met a murderous end at the hands of his brother, Claudius, who has now succeeded him as King and, moreover, married his widow too.
Now you might think that Hamlet would rush off, kill the new King, and possibly his mother - but then there wouldn't be much of a play left. So, Shakespeare has Hamlet bide his time, feigning madness so that Claudius and his mother don't suspect he's on to their misdoings.
Those of you of who've been following my ranting about the use of smoke effect in almost every other play I see in the West End, will be fascinated to know that the trend has reached its hazy zenith in this production, because Michael Vale's set is, well, smoke! And it's not just restricted to the appearance of Hamlet's ghostly father returned from the dead to spill the beans about his demise. The smoke pervades almost every scene in greater or lesser quantities - usually greater - and it's combined with intense shafts of light shone down from above or from the wings to produce an Elsinore which one might think is suffering, as England once did, from excessive use of coal fires.
Ed Stoppard's portrayal of Hamlet may not go down in theatre annals as one of the great Hamlet's of all time, but its combination of intellectual brooding and restrained anger provides the right kind of focal point to sustain an evening of theatre which would otherwise have been rather ordinary, if not a little dull. With both the good looks and acting ability to tackle the role, Stoppard is near-perfect casting for Hamlet, and doesn't fail to deliver. It's a performance which is subtle enough and confident enough to include some much-needed humour. There was a particularly nice moment when Stoppard, dragging old Polonius's body out of his mother's room, stops and says 'Goodnight mother' in a jovial, matter-of-fact kind of way that brought well-deserved laughter from the attentive audience.
Still known to the British public for her long running role as 'Ange', the gin-swilling wife of the landlord of the 'Queen Vic' pub in the even longer running BBC TV soap 'EastEnders', Anita Dobson takes on the role of Gertude, Queen of Denmark. During the first half, Ms Dobson's voice seemed rather light and thin - perhaps affected by so much smoke. Although it seemed regal enough in a way, it also had a hint of the upper-class accents of television or radio announcers from the 40s or 50s. It improved a bit after the interval as she got into her stride in her big scene with Hamlet where she has to almost wrestle with him as his feelings towards her begin to boil over. Although there was emotion in her playing, I never felt fully convinced by Dobson's performance because she seemed uncomfortable rather than close to breakdown. But I had to force back a smile as she delivered a reference to her former soap role when, mistakenly sipping from a goblet of poisoned wine at the end of the play, she cries 'The drink, the drink'.
Providing something of a balance with Stoppard's Hamlet, Ben Warwick's Laertes is louder and more vigorous, bristling with the need for revenge after his father has been (almost casually) killed by Hamlet, and his sister Ophelia (ably and charmingly played by Alice Patten) commits suicide. But Michael Cronin's Polonius was baffling. Beginning with a gruff, statesmanlike speech to his son about how he should conduct himself abroad - the well-known 'neither a borrower nor a lender be' speech - he strangely flips into something of a buffoon in later scenes.
Without much in the way of jokes, enough soliloquies to fill a couple of weighty tomes in themselves, a mountain of corpses left on stage by the conclusion, and a running time over three hours, Shakespeare's tragedy, written around 1600, demands a lot of both audience and cast alike. And in that light, Stephen Unwin's direction seemed safe, reserved and cautious - much of the action being static, and largely voluminous quantities of smoke without much in the way of any real fire. But there's certainly a crackle, if not a rather bright spark, in the form of Stoppard, which means it's not total doom and gloom in Unwin's choking, empty Elsinore.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Anaemic, surprisingly vacuous production." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "The whole thing is juiceless and fatally contained." ADAM SCOTT for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Stoppard's is an intellectually nimble Hamlet...brisk production." LYN GARDENER for THE GUARDIAN says, "There can be virtue in plainness, and Unwin's intimate production tells the story exceptionally well without any of those directorial flourishes that are so often a feature of contemporary Shakespeare." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "As clear as it is spare." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Fine Hamlet...Leaving this production, you feel you have seen Shakespeare's play, rather than someone else's opinion of Shakespeare's play. It's a surprisingly rare and refreshing sensation.