An unusual production of Hamlet provides valuable insights into Shakepeare's revenge hero. Heather Neill reports
Michael Boyd's first RSC production as artistic director is a clear, exciting version of Shakespeare's best-known tragedy. The choice of Elizabethan dress does not detract from the political intrigue. While no obvious parallels are drawn with modern security systems, it is telling that, during the play-within-the-play scene, in which Hamlet assures himself of Claudius's guilt, pre-arranged guards appear as if from nowhere, anticipating trouble.
Polonius (Richard Cordery) is amusing and menacing. This is someone who is at ease in the world of spying. Toby Stephens is a glamorous Hamlet (pictured above), furiously angry and not much given to introspection. It is easier to accept him as a rebellious student home from Wittenberg than as the philosophical thinker his soliloquies usually suggest. This Hamlet is never for a moment on the edge of madness.
Gavin Marshall, Michael Boyd's assistant, says there is no reason to see Hamlet as anything other than a man of action, and that Shakespeare indicates in the final scene that he would have been a great king. "He doesn't really procrastinate. He expresses frustration because he has to play politics and he is aware of the bigger issues - he is concerned about the fate of his soul."
Michael Boyd is especially interested in the religious intrigues of Elizabeth's day. Hamlet is studying at Luther's university, but he has to confront the ghost of his father who seems to come from purgatory - a Catholic idea discredited by Protestants. Greg Hicks as a chalk-white, chilling manifestation, clearly from another world and suffering beyond endurance, underlines this theme brilliantly.
Hamlet is presented with a dilemma: if there is no such place as purgatory, is the ghost a demon bent on destroying his soul? Michael Boyd believes Shakespeare "wrote action, not contemplation. The image of Hamlet contemplating his navel is so deep-rooted that it is difficult for some people to clean away the post-Freudian mud and get back to Shakespeare's revenge hero."
Gavin Marshall says that "much of the play is a game between the king and Hamlet as Hamlet tries to work out how to kill him".
This approach makes for an unusual production, with Claudius (a troubled Clive Wood) and Hamlet both political schemers in a world where the king has the power and Hamlet the wit. No production of Hamlet can encompass all the play's possibilities, but even for those (and I am one) who prefer their Hamlets to be intellectually rather than physically muscular, this one yields some valuable insights.
Until October 16, then at Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from November 1 and Albery Theatre, London, from November 18