Hamlet - Old Vic 2004

Wednesday, 28 April, 2004
Review by: 
Alan Bird

Trevor Nunn’s production of Hamlet is the most exciting piece of theatre currently in London’s West End. Set in the present day, it is easy to imagine that one is watching the personal consequences of machiavellian family intrigue upon an intense young man who is trying to find certainty whilst surrounded by fickle affection. The production downplays the theme of monarchy, and portrays Claudius’s crime as born out of love for Gertrude rather than for greed for the Danish throne. Nunn has copiously succeeded in creating a Hamlet for the 21st century.

Not only is this a masterful production but also we witness what will surely prove to be one of the most talked about performance’s of Hamlet for many a decade. What is so incredible about this Hamlet is the fact that Ben Whishaw performs it: a 23-year-old who only left RADA last year.

Far from being a robust young man, haunted by anger and revenge that is only held back by uncertainty, this Hamlet is skinny and frail in stature, raw and idealistic in nature. The sudden shock of his father’s death, mother’s adultery and uncle’s crime turns his world inside out. Lost and adrift, questioning the value of everything he once held dear, we watch as he wrestles the ghosts that haunt him, ghosts far more real than that of his recently murdered father’s apparition.

Ben Whishaw brings a simple openhearted honesty to his portrayal. There is no histrionics; everything is done with simple unpretentious ease. When he sits with pills and a penknife considering suicide, contemplating the question of whether it is better “To be or not to be?” one senses his frailty not through any melodramatic gestures, but in the simple expressive manner of his voice and the haunting look in his eyes.

It is hard to vision Whishaw’s Hamlet has an avenging angel about to swoop down on his prey once any lingering doubts of their guilt has been dispelled. Instead we feel his disquietude at his own failings and inadequacies, his struggle in determining his course of action and the consuming anxiety of trying to determine truth in an ambiguous world. Ben Whishaw is compelling to watch, enigmatic, intense, vulnerable, as well as engaging and charming. He makes you realise that Claudius murdered not only Hamlet’s father, but also Hamlet’s innocence.

19 year-old Samantha Whittaker as Ophelia, works well as the teenage girl who has a crush upon Hamlet, however, her grief induced madness grows increasingly annoying; it has all the innocence of a mischievous schoolgirl, but none of the grief of a daughter’s mourning.

Nicholas Jones gives an engaging performance as the congenial pompous Polonius, in a production that explores the generation gaps; Jones brings some wonderful touches of humour as he tries to relate to the young people around him.

Tom Mannion and Imogen Stubbs, play the part of Claudius and Gertrude like two socialites, one can imagine them appearing on the front cover of Hello Magazine sporting the latest fashions. Stubbs creates a pathetic Gertrude, a woman who seems powerless to comprehend her situation and who relies upon her grace and charm to win favour. When confronted for her moral failings by Hamlet, her confident front quickly evaporates as she turns to alcohol to drown her sorrows. Mannion’s Claudius comes across as an iron fist in a velvet glove, smooth but insincere and when cornered, deadly - only his love for Gertrude seems authentic.

This is a Hamlet to savour.


What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "No Hamlet has made a more powerful or emotional impact..." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "There are many things to recommend in Nunn's production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Whishaw...presents the most raw and vulnerable Hamlet I have ever seen.....This old, and perhaps over familiar, play suddenly seems wonderfully fresh, urgent and young again." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "This production is like Whishaw’s performance, bursting with familial grief but lacking the essential nobility to make it truly tragic." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Ben Whishaw ...an electrifying performance."

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian
Daily Telegraph
Financial Times
The Times

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