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Set play

HAMLET. Birmingham Rep, Royal National Theatre

Hamlet continues to be top of the classic pops. Scarcely a week goes by without the announcement of another Prince of Denmark preparing to strut his stuff. You may have missed Peter Zadek's German production starring a 55-year-old woman, Angela Winkler, which paid a fleeting visit to the Edinburgh Festival this summer, but Mark Rylance's affecting, and often hilarious, performance can be seen until September 24 at Shakespeare's Globe in London. And this week three more productions take to the boards.

They all have one thing in common: Fortinbras and the Norwegian sub-plot have been excised and the focus is on the domestic tragedy. In a pub theatre, the Old Red Lion in London, the running time is a mere two hours, less than half the length of recent Hamlets, including Kenneth Branagh's film version. At the Birmingham Rep and at the National Theatre, cutting has not been quite so drastic.

John Caird, directing Simon Russell Beale in the title role in London, and Bill Alexander, reviving last year's production starring Richard McCabe in Birmingham, have quite distinctive ideas about how to approach Shakespeare, but they agree on this - Caird says he is irritated by proudly presented uncut versions. "They are simply using all the Hamlet material in the same evening," he says, implying that it was never intended to be played all at once. "It's like saying you can't have your pudding until you've eaten your greens. When you cut the sub-plot, it knits together and seems always to have been like that, which makes one suspect the material was added later."

Alexander thinks the play is flawed because it is overwritten and that the theme of sons avenging their fathers is clear enough with he examples of Hamlet and Laertes without including Fortinbras as well.

Neither director believes that Hamlet is mad. Alexander has even changed the words "antic disposition" - which Hamlet uses to signal his intention to pretend to be mad - to "act of madness", to ensure that no one misses the point. "For a man in emotional and intellectual turmoil with a passionate interest in theatre, it is easy to do," he says. "He does come close to hysteria, but it is not madness. He's an emotionally childish 30-year-old - as you can tell from the drivel he writes to Ophelia - and when that needy side is thwarted, he is capable of acting violently."

Caird says that the madder Hamlet seems, the more difficult it is for us to recognise his problems as ours. And that would be a loss.

Alexander believes that Hamlet adores both his parents, especially the fact that they loved each other - or so he thought. "That is why he is utterly disgusted with Gertrude's behaviour and why the word 'seemed' is echoed by 'enseam'd bed." But neither director will have any truck with suggestions of incest between mother and son, for which they think there is no evidence at all.

Alexander says that Polonius, a snob and a politician with an eye to the main chance, realises his mistake when Hamlet seems to be mad with love for Ophelia and he has just told her to reject him. Marriage to the prince might have been an option after all. For Caird, Denmark is a "notional place, straight out of Shakespeare's imagination" and, like Alexander, he has chosen to set his production in a kind of Renaissance, a cross-roads between the medieval and the modern.

Heather Neill

National: 020 7452 3000 Birmingham Rep: 0121 236 4455Old Red Lion: 020 7837 7816

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