A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions


Samuel West’s Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company production at London’s Barbican was the Hamlet for our decade.  Director Steven Pimlott has wisely let the words speak for themselves, and on a large, bare, white-walled stage he employed lighting, two chairs, and modern dress to bring to vivid life this most glorious work of our greatest playwright.

West looks every inch the Prince of Denmark as detailed in the text itself: slight of build (unlike “Hercules”) yet athletic, meeting the demands of the action that calls for a climactic fencing match at the end. From his hunched-up angry son chastising his mother in his first scene, through the soliloquies (all there) with their moods varying from despair to self-reproach, to sensitivity to others’ suffering in “this harsh world,” to realizing that “the readiness is all,” West is Hamlet.  He has the nobility as well as the youth and the agility the text calls for, and he can deliver the language, with the right rhythm, inflection, and music, so that his speeches are not only clear but also stunning in their effect.

Speaking the soliloquies directly to the audience, even making eye contact, is the right approach, if the actor is as talented as West.  Pimlott makes good use of the large playing area, and the text is cut only a bit. I missed Claudius’ aside as Polonius plants Ophelia in Hamlet’s way, “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience.”  For the audience, Claudius confesses his guilt so that we know before Hamlet does that the ghost is “an honest ghost.”  The four hours (with two intermissions) pass quickly, except for Ophelia’s mad scene.

With the exception of Kerry Condon’s Ophelia, the play is well cast.  To cast the “beauteous” Ophelia as a plain-looking, bony waif seems perverse.  Add an Irish accent lacking the characteristic lilt and music while swallowing key words, and this scene falls flat.  Plaudits to Pimlott for placing Ophelia upstage, perfectly still, while Hamlet downstage delivers the “to be or not to be” soliloquy directly to the audience.  (It is still irksome to recall Simon Russell Beale voicing the same passage in John Caird’s production at the National, while Ophelia is prancing about the stage, evidently preparing for her song-and-dance mad scene in this production.) 

That the other principals in this ensemble cast are uniformly good, without any attempts at star turns, is commendable, and focuses the audience’s attention always on Hamlet:  Larry Lamb as Claudius, Mary Cruickshank as Gertrude, and Christopher Good as the Ghost are the First Family, while Alan David is Polonius and Ben Meyjes is son Laertes.  Wayne Cater and Sean Hannaway are suitably sinister as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while John Dougall as Horatio is as considerate and dependable a friend as one would wish.  And the cast are all there, no cuts of important characters like Fortinbras (Finn Caldwell) or of scenes, like the tense expository opening.  With so many actors onstage, the curtain call is a grand sight.

In addition to Pimlott’s “less is more” approach that rightly accented the action, some good directorial touches included the effective use of lighting, including spots, and the applauding, even whooping, entourage surrounding Claudius – who behave just the same when Fortinbras takes control. In the final scene, the king’s seizing and handing the dropped poisoned sword to Laertes might go against the original Folio stage direction (“In scuffling they change rapiers”) that suggests Hamlet, enraged at being wounded by a sword that should have been tipped in this sporting match, grabs the untipped one.   But one can see the motive of Claudius – underhand to the end, he plots to eradicate the one other person who knows about the poison.

Most importantly, the pacing is right.  The lines are delivered not at breakneck speed, but with necessary thought, inflection and pauses. Scene follows scene rapidly, sustaining the suspense throughout.  One can only hope that this exciting, thought-provoking production, with its brilliant Hamlet at the core, will have a further life beyond its run in London and travel to America.