Friday, June 28, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Many productions have a memorable tag or theme that sticks in the mind years after we have seen them. The current production of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon will no doubt be recalled as the Fencing Hamlet.

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet wears a fencing outfit throughout and fencing swords are in evidence all the time. Fencing as the central metaphor of the pay has a number of advantages. It qualifies Hamlet as athletic, nimble of mind and body and not just a brooding and deeply troubled man at war with himself and the world. In addition it makes swords available for the fights in the play. This is a modern dress production and the presence of swords may otherwise be hard to explain. Fencing is done wearing masks and we get the additional metaphor of hidden thoughts.

Aside from athletic, Slinger’s Hamlet is extremely theatrical. He is a mimic, a clown, a hyperactive person who jumps, dances and is very aggressive. In fact he assaults Ophelia, pulls her clothes off and acts like a brute toward her. When this Hamlet goes mad he goes completely wacko.

Slinger displays an amazing number of vocal intonations. He can change his voice in a second to mimic or mock other people and even himself.  When he starts the famous soliloquy, he says “To be or not to be” seriously and then in a higher, almost comic tone he states “THAT is the question.”

His madness disappears when he returns from England and we see yet another side of the multi-faceted character. A phenomenal performance.

Greg Hicks plays Claudius like a well-suited businessman. Hicks also plays Hamlet’s Ghost and his resonant voice and strong stage presence provide for a fine performance from this veteran Shakespearean.

Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) in this production is a frumpy young woman who is dominated by her father. He points his finger at her and she goes where he directs her. She looks as if she is not all there from the start making her eventual descent into madness a short trip.

For her mad scene she is dressed like a bride and she shows her more forceful character when she is away from the sane world that she left. The frumpy girl becomes  a beautiful and very affecting bride. After her burial, she is left visible on the stage during the duel between her brother Laertes and Hamlet. A marvelous touch by Director David Farr.

Farr treats Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant) quite seriously instead of evoking the usual laughter that is easily available at their expense. An effective choice by the director ansd well done by the actors.

Charlotte Cornwell, in a fancy dress and mink stole around her shoulders, is a portly Gertrude, well past her prime. She is usually portrayed as sexually attractive woman but not in this production. When Hamlet tells her that “at your age /The heyday in the blood is tame” he means that both desire and physical attractiveness have diminished. Cornwell rises to superb dramatic heights in the bedroom scene with her son and the Ghost.

The renovated Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a thrust stage that extends well into the audience. There is an attempt to resemble a 17th century theatre without the open space for the groundlings and without the open roof. The advantage of course is that the audience is very close to the acting.

Farr makes full use of the stage. There is an acting area at the back, a stage with a curtain in fact,  with a table and some chairs but most of the action takes place in the open space. Farr lets the text dominate the performance and with Shakespeare one can hardly go wrong with that approach with good actors. Slinger especially displays the many ways that Shakespeare’s lines can be spoken to great effect.

An outstanding production.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare opened on March 14, 2013 and continues in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.

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