Very little is certain about Hamlet, a character forever shifting with interpretation. One thing we do know - from the Gravediggers' conversation in Act V - is that he is 30. Not so fast, says the play's latest director, John Retallack. "There are so many signs of youth in the early scenes that we shouldn't take that clue too literally. He is much 'older' when he comes back to Elsinore."
This is one of the strengths of Ian Pepperell's intelligent and emotionally taut performance as the Prince: he sulks like a teenager in the first Act when Claudius and Gertrude acknowledge the adulation of a sycophantic court but grows with experience into an adult capable of leadership.
Is he ever out of his mind? "He begins the play with his rage 'bottled', " says Retallack, "He would like to kill himself, disappear. When he meets his father's ghost the rage is increased to such a degree that he adopts a different persona." Protected by this, he attempts to find the truth. "He asks everyone if they are 'honest' - he doesn't even know whether the Ghost is lying. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive; they are clearly not honest. Then the Players come. They live by pretending to be someone else, but are reliably honest, uncluttered, undriven by ambition like the people at court."
The supposed madness is seen differently by other characters: "Gertrude has a guilty conscience and would like the cause to be love for Ophelia rather than her own behaviour; Polonius sees an opportunity for himself in Hamlet's apparent derangement over his daughter; Ophelia wants the Hamlet she knew before his mother's remarriage - that's why she takes part in the scene eavesdropped by her father and the king; Claudius underestimates him but would prefer the problem to be love rather than suspicion."
William Russell's playing of Claudius gives the production an unusual moral polarity. Retallack says, "He is the only evil thing in the play." The usurping king is allowed scarcely a hint of remorse, even when he faces up to his guilt ("O, my offence is rank"). Russell also plays the Ghost and the set is dominated by contrasting portraits of him as the two brothers: one a bit of a stick-in-the-mud but noble in intention, the other slick and slippery. The set is otherwise simple, the actors playing on a thrust space on which are listed the names of Hamlet's ancestors. The implication is that however modern a monarch may be, he cannot escape the weight of history: 20th-century parallels speak for themselves.
This is an intelligent, modern, fast-paced production, admirably clear for a student's "first" Hamlet. There are cuts, but the only significant loss is "Speak the speech", Hamlet's advice to the Players. All that this implies can be made up in class afterwards during what should be stimulating discussion.
Until Nov 30: Taunton, Huddersfield, Hull, Crawley, Preston, Buxton, Cheltenham, Reading and Barnstaple. Tour details: 01865 245781; education pack: 01865 723238.