Adam Rosenfelt

Even without its leading man, the Royal Shakespeare Company's new "Hamlet" would be a serious achievement. Designer Robert Jones holds "the mirror up to nature" with his elegantly spare mirrored back wall and floor, providing the perfect revealing, chilly arena for Gregory Doran's unusually tense and clear production.

Even without its leading man, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new “Hamlet” would be a serious achievement. Designer Robert Jones holds “the mirror up to nature” with his elegantly spare mirrored back wall and floor, providing the perfect revealing, chilly arena for Gregory Doran’s unusually tense and clear production. The setting is perfect for David Tennant’s galvanizingly taut lead performance.

Tennant is currently one of Britain’s most famous faces thanks to his audience-grabbing incarnation of the title role in the BBC ratings sensation “Doctor Who,” but the actor’s legit credits range from leads at the National and Donmar to playing Romeo for the RSC. His lean, spry Hamlet exudes youthful vigor and romantic passion, but the characterization’s hallmark is quick-witted intelligence, allowing Tennant to illumine conflicting ideas at a gripping pace.

Doran respects the fact that Shakespeare really did know how to start a play. “Hamlet” opens with a ghost scene, so the director makes it properly scary. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium is enveloped in complete darkness, the haze pierced only by shafts of torchlight carried by the chilled, frightened members of the watch who for the past two nights have been frightened by a ghost.

Distant industrial noises loom menacingly, and as the bell tolls, the ghost (Patrick Stewart, doubling as Claudius) appears as if from nowhere.

Designer Jones contrasts that opening with the spare elegance of the modern-dress court — all chic white-tie-and-tails formality with a malevolent hint of military backup. And as smooth-talking Claudius greets everyone, the boyish-looking character in a downstage corner, ill-at-ease in a dark suit and staring determinedly through his champagne flute to the floor, is Tennant’s silently intent Hamlet.

The actor’s command of the language is highly distilled. Beautiful but empty savoring of poetry is replaced by unusually dynamic, energized phrasing. Tennant is not interested in slowing drama up to illustrate an image; he’s showing what his character is up to at any given moment. His mind works very fast, and he speaks at the speed of thought, keeping audiences absolutely tied to his shifting perspective on Hamlet’s predicament.

Stewart’s Claudius is less of a monarch, more a supreme politician. Rather than opting for bombast, he glides silkily in and out like the smoothest of operators. That interpretation runs to his final moment, where instead of being forced by Hamlet to drink the poisoned cup, he smilingly takes it. Claudius knows he has no alternative, but he’s smug knowing that Hamlet’s seeming victory is Pyrrhic.

The downside of Stewart’s total adherence to that interpretation is that it robs the scene where Claudius tries to pray of sincerity. And this is also the point at which the production falters.

En route to Gertrude’s bedroom, Hamlet sees his stepfather. Low, threatening string music steals in, and Tennant’s eyes light up. “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I’ll do’t.” Up goes his knife, the music rises… and the lights snap to blackout. For anyone who has never seen “Hamlet” — and Tennant’s presence has elicited hoards of new young audiences — that gives the play an intermission cliffhanger. But it damages the flow.

The second half opens at precisely the same point, with Hamlet having traditional second thoughts over dispatching his stepfather. But from there he has to go straight into the closet scene in which he harangues his mother and kills the unseen listener he thinks is Claudius (but is actually Polonius). Divorced from its build-up, this fever pitch of emotion feels inauthentic.

Given that this is Gertrude’s only substantial scene, it’s unsurprising that Penny Downie is at her best here. Left alone and terrified after her son’s onslaught, she responds to his manic farewell with a hysterical laugh that turns to sobs. Doran then brings Claudius in silently behind her, putting his hands horribly close to her throat. It’s another electrifying moment, but again the scene unravels as it contradicts the couple’s otherwise relaxed physicality.

In the second half, Doran’s production occasionally overplays its hand. His pointers to the play’s political world — sounds of helicopters, Laertes returning with an offstage crowd crying his name, the military strapping Hamlet to a chair, etc. — topple over into exaggeration. And while Mariah Gale’s Ophelia is intelligently played, her sung madness is too self-conscious to be moving. All this, however, is a small price to pay for the production’s  lucidity and dramatic cogency.

Peter De Jersey is a movingly sympathetic Horatio, and Edward Bennett shines as an unusually interesting Laertes. From the blazer-wearing dolt embarrassed when Ophelia finds condoms in his luggage during their initial farewell, he grows into a man more intelligently resolute. Mark Hadfield also succeeds in making the gravedigger funny.

If Tennant weren’t contracted to play Berowne in Doran’s forthcoming production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” — not to mention filming four “Doctor Who” TV specials in 2009 — the production could run and run. As it is, it plays in rep at Stratford before a limited six-week London season. The line for cancellations is likely to be lengthy.

Hamlet

Royal Shakespeare Company Courtyard, Stratford-Upon-Avon; 1,000 seats; £38 $74 top

Production

A Royal Shakespeare Company presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gregory Doran.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Robert Jones; lighting, Tim Mitchell; original music, Paul Englishby; sound, Jeremy Dunn; movement direction, Michael Ashcroft; production stage manager; Suzi Blakey. Opened, reviewed Aug. 5, 2008. Running time: 3 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Hamlet - David Tennant Claudius, Ghost - Patrick Stewart Gertrude - Penny Downie Horatio - Peter De Jersey Ophelia - Mariah Gale Polonius - Oliver Ford Davies Laertes - Edward Bennett Player King - John Woodvine Reynaldo - David Ajala Rosencrantz - Sam Alexander Guildenstern - Tom Davey Gravedigger - Mark Hadfield
With: Ewen Cummins, Robert Curtis, Keith Osborn, Ryan Gage, Jim Hooper, Ricky Champ, Samuel Dutton, Andrea Harris, Roderick Smith, Riann Steele, Zoe Thorne.
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