Studies in revenge

Rex Gibson

Hamlet. William Shakespeare. Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The Spanish Tragedy. Thomas Kyd. The Swan

Matthew Warchus's controversial production of Hamlet begins with compelling images. Hamlet pours the ashes of his dead father from a silver urn while behind him pictures of his happy childhood flicker on a giant screen. A louche house party, pure Evelyn Waugh, celebrates the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet and Ophelia lovingly exchange gifts.

The highlight of the production is Alex Jennings's finely spoken Prince. Full of boiling disgust, his mercurial performance admir-ably defines Hamlet as a dangerously unpredictable young man. But he is set in Warchus's radically cut and rearranged version of the play. The political plot has disappeared altogether: there is no Fortinbras and no concern for the throne of Denmark.

Does Warchus's audacious editing and direction work? The answer on Press Night was "Not yet". The banal Bad Quarto insertions caused much headshaking among experienced Shakespearians and the huge statue of Christ which dominates many scenes is never integrated into the action.

The relentless drive to present a drama of modern family life reduces the complexity of character and action - Polonius is a bumbling buffer whose death provokes laughter. Claudius is a bland, pinstriped executive, Gertrude a formidable businesswoman who gets to speak many of her new husband's lines. The last 20 minutes seem rushed and low key.

But this Hamlet comes with a golden opportunity for students. Next door in the Swan, Michael Boyd's superb production of Thomas Kyd's blood-boltered Spanish Tragedy incisively demonstrates how Shakespeare transformed the genre of revenge tragedy. Kyd's stock characters declaim clangingly regular blank verse, while Shakespeare's creations are recognisable human beings endowed with the gift of extraordinarily dramatic speech.

*Tickets: 01789 295623

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Rex Gibson

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