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.