Thursday, 31 July 2008


On Monday, 21st July, I accompanied my niece, Ann, to see the R.S.C. production of William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. This production had received excellent reviews and the casting of David Tennant in the title role, fresh from his success as 'Doctor Who' on television, ensured that every performance was sold out. The final accolade, a few days before my visit, was the presence in the audience of Britain's embattled Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. So what did I think of the production?

Well, you may realise that I am inclined to be rather old-fashioned in my outlook and a production in modern dress was starting at something of a disadvantage. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, although my approval was not without certain reservations about the production.

For me, The Courtyard Theatre is something of a "Curate's Egg". The 1,000 seat venue was opened in 2006 and appears rather temporary with lots of bare plywood and apparently temporary arrangements. A rectangular stage projects into the auditorium with seating on three sides and three levels. The fourth side is closed off by five huge, reflective, rotating 'doors' in place of a conventional proscenium arch. Runways allow the cast to enter and leave using all four corners of the projecting stage, necessitating props and make-up areas behind the stalls seating in the area through which the audience enters and leaves. All this leads to a sense of involvement which is not unhelpful. I didn't find the acoustics of The Courtyard Theatre ideal.

I've always held that the thing that counts in Shakespeare is the words - respect the text and other aspects of the production, whilst important, are secondary. It's some time since I'd read the text but, as far as I remembered, the author was well-served. The re-arrangements which have been made have been carefully considered. There are plenty of places on the Internet where you can access the full text of Shakespeare's works - I quite like the simplicity of Jeremy Hylton's Site. As you'd expect from a top-notch company, the phrasing and timing was effective. I haven't previously seen a production of 'Hamlet' which played the humour right up to the hilt, as this one does. Oddly, it didn't grate with me, leavening the general sense of despair which can descend on this play and throwing into relief the major tragic moments.

David Tennant

David Tennant certainly takes hold of the role of Hamlet. Although he has a distinguished career as a 'serious' actor, one might uncharitably characterise his portrayal here as 'Doctor Who reprised' - there was a lot of running about the stage with arms outstretched in a manic way. Yet I found the result fairly convincing - the veering between comedy and tragedy suggesting Hamlet's distraught state of mind. It was certainly a refreshing interpretation and seemed to meet with the approval of the audience.

Patrick Stewart

Patrick Stewart is impressive in the role of Claudius (doubling as the Ghost of Claudius's dead brother). He, of course, has also combined the classics with a populist career - 'Star Trek' and blockbusters like 'X-Men' are to his credit. I last saw him give a mesmerising performance in 'The Tempest' so his commanding presence in Hamlet was no surprise.

The rest of the cast were experienced and supportive, contributing to a sense of competence throughout the performance.

I didn't particularly like the modern dress and some characters retained dated costumes or uniforms, giving a rather uneven effect. The actors in the play-within-a-play (where Hamlet seeks to portray the death of his father and precipitate re-marriage of his mother) employ sumptuous gold-decorated costumes presumably deliberately contrasted with the relatively restrained dress of the main characters. There were a number of scenes where modernity added nothing for me and jarred with the progress of the story. The most egregious moment was Hamlet's meeting with Fortinbras's army, accompanied by soldiers abseiling from very audible but invisible helicopters above whilst ground marshals signalled the 'choppers' with illuminated batons.

But, at the end of the play, I felt I'd witnessed a production of some moment and this view seemed to be shared by the audience generally, judging by the acclamation. Whilst 'Trekkies' were not in evidence, some of the audience members (mainly female) appeared to be 'Who-ies'.

In December, the production transfers to the Novello Theatre in London for a short season. I have no doubt that tickets will be changing hands at a premium.