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Great Danes

As four new versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet hit the boards, Brian Hayward looks at how the companies are attracting schools. You can forgive teachers for being exasperated when Hamlets start behaving like buses - nothing for months and then four turning up together. It cannot be such good news for theatre companies either, when so many need to give their prime autumn season to the surefire catchpenny of classic Shakespeare.

Not that theatre companies can afford to stop there. If they are pitching at the schools market, then they need a production that resembles the play as taught in the classroom. For teachers, that is Square One; anything extra in the way of workshops and teach-ins is a welcome bonus.

One production, of course, exempts itself from such considerations. Glasgow's Citizens Theatre has not made its considerable reputation by being teacher's pet. Its track record with the gloomy Dane tells its own story. The Hamlet opening tonight is the fourth by the company. Few of us who saw the first, the notorious annunciation of Giles Havergal's company in 1970, will forget it. Ten years later Robert David Macdonald, to everyone's surprise, chose to direct the Quarto version. Philip Prowse, who designed both of these productions, directed and designed a Junker version in 1975, and now takes charge again. As always with the Citizens, the only thing to expect is the unexpected.

Of the remaining three productions, one is also Glasgow-based. Theatre Babel is reviving its much-praised 1995 Hamlet next month, again hoping to "realise the text afresh", but at the same time assuring us that the production is intended to be "a resource for students at examination level".

There is also a day package for schools. In the morning they have a brief introduction to the Bard, and afterwards work in detail on one scene. The students get the chance to direct the Theatre Babel actors, the point being to prove that the language is a practical help to both actors and audience. After seeing the production in the afternoon, back in the classroom they are asked to write unsigned and unmonitored reviews of the company's production.

The version aimed most directly at young audiences is likely to be that from Fecund Theatre in Paisley in November. So far the company's reputation has been built on its readiness to use performance art technology on its "in-house" plays, and this will be its "first venture with a quality writer". I hasten to add that these are the words of the company playwright, one John Keats by name. Three years a teacher, he also designs the educational support, available on request to the school or university.

The fourth Hamlet has already happened and those schools that gambled on the Oxford Stage Company at the Stirling MacRobert Theatre in mid-September were backing a favourite. This was John Retallack's 10th Shakespeare for the company.

Stirling is now a fixture in the Oxford Stage Company diary, and it is a valuable catch for the MacRobert. Their acting style is intelligent, passionate and vigorous, and supported with highly original music and design. This, together with some outstanding casting, brings the phrase "the poor man's RSC" to mind, but that does the OSC less than justice.

This Hamlet demonstrated their strengths well. Played in modern dress but without any shallow updating, it abounded in common sense and clarity at all points. Retallack always excludes the quirky and eccentric.

Most obviously, he demands "television pace": the cast snapped at their cues like underfed piranhas, scenes dissolved at cinematic pace, and lines rattled too fast for footnotes. Played like this, with cuts of course, the play ran for about three of its potential four hours, and emerged as a richly-plotted Revenge drama, which of course it was - before critics obscured it with Freudian overtones.

Clever casting of young Ian Pepperell (better known to millions as Roy Tucker of The Archers) as the Prince, against the venerable playing of Claudius and Polonius in their granite and brass citadel of Elsinore, brought out as never before the impassable generation gap, and the cult hero aspect of the young rebel Hamlet.

Parties from Dunblane and Stirling high schools and St Maurice's (Cumbernauld) participated in the morning workshop. Assistant director Erica Whyman introduced the production, showed how the lighting affects mood, and led Polonius and Laertes in an inventive demonstration of how direction transforms meaning.

With such a disciplined company, it was odd to hear the second gravedigger explain that Hamlet has been sent to England because there the men were as mad as he, through eating beef. They might take that line out, and put back the one about those that play the clowns speaking no more than is set down for them.

* Oxford Stage Company, MacRobert Theatre, September 10-14 * Glasgow Citizens, September 27-October 19 (tel: 0141 429 5561) * Theatre Babel, Cumbernauld, October 28-30 (tel: 01236 732887), then touring to Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, October 31-November 2 (tel: 01224 642230) and Cottier Glasgow, November 19-23 (tel: 0141 357 3868) * Fecund Theatre, Paisley Arts Centre, November 5 (tel: 0141 887 1010).

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