Review: Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

There’s little left to say about Hamlet, every corner analysed, scrutinised and explored by scholars and practitioners alike. But David Farr, whilst remaining faithful to the text, has conjured an undeniably potent production, newly relevant and devastating.
Jon Bausor’s masterful design situates the play, not inside castle walls, but within a dated village hall (equipped for fencing classes), complete with wooden benches, stackable chairs, a solitary helium balloon in the rafters, mucky skylights and parquet flooring. As events unfold the set adorns each used prop like a scar – champagne bottles, bibles, antlers … corpses. There is no escaping the symbolic relevance of what has come to pass.

Jonathan Slinger takes gold with a performance so rare, so pellucid, so alive that any pre-supposition of a naive, foppish, hesitant Hamlet is irradiated

Farr’s direction steers the plot away from despotism (superbly concreted by Slinger’s ironic, blasé use of the plastic crown in the final scene) and instead offers a psychological exploration of the ‘un-breakable’ bond between blood relatives. Greg Hicks’ slight Claudius is infuriatingly calm and rational, but his later shifts are so expertly delivered that his vices seem to seep out, like hot lava from his pores. Charlotte Cornwell’s Gertrude is brilliantly torn. Struggling to detach herself from her son and her late husband she writhes in agony at the sight of Hamlet’s evocative polaroid pictures. Ultimately a “face without a heart,” she coolly buries her pain in the presence of Claudius and Hamlet sees his mother too has slipped away from him. However, it is the heart wrenching, fleshy appearance of the ghost, (played also by Hicks) which loads Hamlet with the ammunition for revenge. The desperate figure, likable and human, clings onto and cradles his son, pleading to be avenged and remembered. This is the first of many moments that induced tears; the audience empathise with Hamlet’s loss of a father rather than the country’s loss of a King. Also notable is Farr’s brave, if slightly odd, handling of the play within a play. The murder plot is delivered through three, contrasting forms of theatrical presentation: Elizabethan, gothic/90’s rock and naturalism. These varying forms stir the rage of Claudius but they also provide a fascinating dichotomy between productions past, and the tremendous production here present.

The cast and band warrant exceptionally high praise, however Jonathan Slinger takes gold with a performance so rare, so pellucid, so alive that any pre-supposition of a naive, foppish, hesitant Hamlet is irradiated. In its place comes a bespectacled, awkward 40-something, tortured by overwhelming feelings of love for his family, his friends and his girl. Fiercely loyal, he is physically incapable of coming to terms with betrayal, more fatal than any stab wound. Slinger’s Hamlet regresses during the course of the play, perhaps in a desperate bid to re-connect with his mother. Reduced to whining, waddling and stamping, Slinger painfully treads upon the remaining wedding confetti that lingers on the ground as a constant reminder of Gertrude’s second marriage. Grunting, groaning and dripping with humanity, Slinger’s Hamlet leaves the engrossed audience no option but to hang on his every word until, of course, “the rest is silence.”

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 28th September
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