Theater Review: Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For day three of my Shakespeare week, I attended the big one, Hamlet. Running a total of 3:35 (with a 20-minute intermission), I can’t remember the last time a theatrical performance went by so quickly. While I tend to get antsy after a while in the theater, or when seeing long movies, this Hamlet was so gripping that it felt like it was just an hour long.

Hamlet-7-2013-361x541.jpgEvery Hamlet is defined by the actor who plays the title role, and this production is no exception. Jonathan Slinger’s performance was breathtaking. The energy he puts into the role, and his portrayal of Hamlet’s slow slide toward tragedy, are astounding.

But this comes with a price. At times, this Hamlet seemed like a one-man show, where the rest of the cast restrained themselves in reaction to Slinger’s commanding presence. Hamlet is not on stage the entire time, of course, but even when he’s not visible, his presence is felt. The only exception to this was the parts in Act IV, when Hamlet is away to England. The scenes with Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia had these characters become much more dynamic.

Slinger’s Hamlet is fierce and truculent. In the first scenes of this modern-dress production, he looks like an accountant, with his suit and tie, and his middle-aged glasses. (You can see this in the video at the end of this article, from Act I, Scene 2.) After he sees his father’s ghost, he changes into a fencing suit, for most of the rest of the play. (Director David Farr’s set for the play is a gymnasium, with rapiers on the walls, and lines drawn on the floor for fencing.) Slinger’s acting is very physical, showing Hamlet’s (real or feigned?) madness not only in words, but also in gestures. He hops and skips across the stage, does a Groucho Marx walk behind one character, and generally acts like a clown.

It is easy to slip into ridicule when playing Hamlet in this way, but I never felt that Slinger crossed the line. He wears his madness on his sleeve, and goes into manic excess at times, but it always seemed in character. As a contrast, Ophelia’s madness (played by the wonderful Pippa Nixon) seemed understated, almost as though it was a feminine counterpoint to Hamlet’s more effusive folly.

The production used some interesting ideas to underscore the themes of the play. At the back of the stage, on an arch, is the slogan “Mens sana in corpore sano,” a healthy mind in a healthy body. And the burial scene, which takes place at the front of the scene, leaves Ophelia’s body visible – yet ignored by the rest of the players – until the very end. The presence of her body provides an interesting context to the duel at the end of the play.

Some elements of the staging bothered me. The lighting was often dim, using neon-type lights on the “ceiling” of the fencing room. The use of music during some of the speeches was intrusive, especially as I was sitting all the way at the front, too close to the speakers (the musicians were playing above the stage, but were not visible, and the music was amplified through speakers). And why did it rain on the stage for about ten seconds at the very end?

Textually, I found it interesting that the play ended with Horatio’s lines:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Why does the drum come hither?

This cuts out the whole bit where Fortinbras instructs his soldiers to bear away Hamlet’s body “like a soldier.” I’ve never quite understood the point of that ending, but this choice seems ever more perplexing. Why not just end the play with Hamlet saying:

The rest is silence.

Hamlet-14-2013-361x541.jpgI haven’t said much about the other actors in the play, but I would like to mention Pippa Nixon, whose Ophelia was striking. I was all the more impressed having seen her the night before as Rosalind, in As You Like It. Her ability to shift between those two characters is impressive, and the way she changed from what looked to be a gawky university student (when she first comes on stage, she bears an armful of books and note books), to the mad Ophelia in a wedding dress, was stunning.

Greg Hicks was excellent as Claudius, and it was only during the cabinet scene that I realized that he was also the ghost. This was an interesting choice of casting, creating a great deal of ambiguity about what Hamlet saw (or thought he saw). But since it wasn’t obvious at the beginning, it didn’t click for me until after the play was over, when I confirmed, in the program, that it was the same actor playing both roles.

Alex Waldmann’s Horatio was very good, but he seems to have lost many of his lines. The letter from Hamlet about escaping from pirates was trimmed, and Horatio’s part seemed overall to be much shorter than usual.

But, in the end, this was Jonathan Slinger’s show. He played a convincing Hamlet, one that went very far, but never too far, and one that had me on the edge of my seat for much of the play.

Watch Jonathan Slinger in Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet: