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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Jonathan Slinger/ Ph: Keith Pattison

Only a few years after the exceptionally exciting Hamlet of David Tennant and director Gregory Doran, the Royal Shakespeare Company re-boots the play with another outstanding performance from Jonathan Slinger in a production by David Farr that makes of Elsinore an institutional fencing school and the prince a grief-struck depressive.

Not many modern Hamlets “do” melancholy. With Tennant, we had a gibbering prankster, but also a lucid one; there was method in his madness. Slinger is a little boy lost, mooching around in a dark suit and spectacles, nervy, jumpy and quick to take offence.
“Who’s there?” Barnado’s fear-fuelled cry on the battlements, and the first words in the play, are here let slip by Hamlet as the ghost scene fades across his scuttling presence, as though the drama is a film in Hamlet’s mind’s eye, just as Ian Rickson’s production was for a similarly institutionalised Michael Sheen at the Young Vic last year.
The show is full of clever, spatially devised tricks of staging. Farr, with his design team of Jon Bausor (sets), Jon Clark (lighting) and Gareth Fry (sound), is possibly the first director to fully expose the new RST thrust stage as a going concern, with an upstage, raised “tiring” house serving for the play scenes. A palace motto, “Mens sana in corpore sano” is inscribed across the top of the false proscenium.
Slinger isn’t much of a candidate for health in body or mind, but he has a whiplash, vindictive sense of humour that illuminates scene after scene as he jogs through in his dishevelled fencing tunic, confronting the Ghost (John Stahl at the performance I saw, replacing the “indisposed” Greg Hicks as Claudius, too) in his fencing mask, joshing dangerously with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Oliver Ryan and Nicolas Tennant), flaying Charlotte Cornwell’s understated Gertrude with hissing savagery when comparing the likenesses of king to killer in an electrifying boudoir scene.
“Assume a virtue if you have it not,” in the closet scene raises the biggest laugh of the night, and it’s a nasty thing for a boy to say to his mother. And that’s what Slinger is: a boy, albeit a slavering psychotic one, and we believe him completely when he cries out in a hysterical fit of rage that he loved the dead Ophelia; he just couldn’t express it.
Pippa Nixon, who plays Ophelia – and also Rosalind in the company’s acclaimed new hippie-dippy As You Like It – is left lying in her shallow grave in full view for the last few scenes; I spent most of that time worrying in case she developed an itch, or suddenly sneezed. But Nixon is made of stern stuff. Her performance is full of grace and gumption and she plays the mad scene as a mock wedding, daubing her witnesses in blood – she’s into a little self-harming – instead of the wild flowers. Hamlet subverts country custom, too, accepting his banishment to England with a sardonic Morris dance.
Fortinbras (Chris Jared) is not cut, but his last speech is, and the Players are streamlined into a striking dumb show that mirrors the king and queen in their audience, though I can’t think why Cornwell re-writes “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” as the dull and far inferior “The lady protests too much.” Come on, this is the RSC.
Alex Waldmann (also playing Orlando in As You) makes not a lot of Horatio, while Luke Norris’s Laertes is hot-tempered without being impassioned, and Robin Soans’s Polonius swallows so many lines in his frantic gabbling that you fear he’ll choke before he gets stabbed.

While the company looks much thinner in the ranks than it did for the Tennant/Doran version, Slinger is a worthy addition to the pantheon. But one thing he must stop immediately: an impromptu, half-intoned chorus of comedian Ken Dodd’s “Happiness” song before he launches into a tremendous, querulous “To be, or not to be.” The glinting intelligence of his acting and word play needs no such cheap shot.


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