Crossed wires

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Heather Neill previews a production of Hamlet that will be notable for its minimalist set

Hamlet By William Shakespeare Touring

The Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa has a reputation for taking an original look at Shakespeare, often introducing visual surprises.

This time, says his Hamlet, Michael Maloney, "he is allowing the text to do the talking". Cuts have been made (as they almost always are in modern productions) "but nothing has radically gone missing".

There is a hint of the East in the flowing costumes, but the set is spare, consisting mainly of seven strands of barbed wire going from floor to ceiling.

Hamlet, says Maloney, compares himself to his father, but he is completely different from him. "He has a studious nature and was allowed by his father to study to become a judicious future ruler. As a character he turns on a sixpence. His thoughts are mercurial and if they seem illogical that is how people's minds are when they are not monitored."

If Hamlet gives us the benefit of his innermost thoughts, there are few he can trust at court. Maloney sees betrayal as a significant theme, with only Horatio remaining a completely loyal friend. Hamlet enjoys his relationship with the Players, however, and is especially glad to see them at a point where he has just been betrayed by other old friends Rosencranz and Guildenstern.

But isn't he unnecessarily cruel to Ophelia? Maloney points out that "the first half of the 'Get thee to a Nunnery' speech is full of 'thee' and 'thou' - quite intimate. He has made the decision to wipe the court clean and she mustn't become involved. Then half way through he says 'Where's your father?' and he becomes insulting."

This is simply another example of betrayal: Ophelia is no more than a puppet being manipulated by her father, Polonius.

There is, says Maloney, a hint of sexuality in Hamlet's relationship with his mother, but his main feeling towards her is "anger, murderous rage. He wants to make her see the light. They become mother-and-child again and there is a moment of forgiveness."

Maloney says that Hamlet is "on the edge of real madness" when he decides to put on an "antic disposition" but he doesn't lose sight of the fact that Hamlet, however sophisticated, is a revenge play, part of a popular genre.

When Hamlet returns from his adventures on the way to England he has changed: "He has had time to collect himself and the first thing that happens is that he is confronted (when he encounters the gravediggers) with the mortality of someone who was part of his youth, Yorick. It is a stilling, calming experience, but then in bereavement, as Ophelia's funeral procession enters, he returns to heightened madness."

In the final scene, Hamlet shows that he has gained a sense of responsibility: "He will never be a Hercules like his father, but he can be a person of action and, even in death, he has all the qualities of leadership."

l London until November 27 Tel: 0845 1207518; Royal Centre, Nottingham, November 30 - December 4 (post-show discussion, December 1); Theatre Royal, Bath, December 7 - 11 (workshop for GCSEAS-level, December 8)

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