Dane the shorter

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
HAMLET. Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

The latest RSC script of Hamlet bears the line "edited by Matthew Warchus" under its title and the usual four hours will be cut to two and a half. But this does not imply casual slaughter: "I've always found", says Warchus, "that Hamlet seems to buckle under its own weight. It's a shame for the last part to be played in front of a tired audience. What must make Shakespeare turn in his grave is that plays intended to surprise have acquired an absurd, nursery-rhyme familiarity."

He acknowledges that "every cut is a diminution in terms of ideas - visionary, incisive, unexpected, wise and funny". Warchus is hoping that audiences will be "stirred up" to read Hamlet in full and discover it to be a "bigger and better play in its printed version".

In the theatre, the action must surprise, must "speak urgently and directly", and so has been narrowed to the story of two families - those of Hamlet and Polonius; the political frame has gone, so has the soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me", part of Hamlet's advice to the Players and some of Ophelia's mad scene. The very first moments bring a jolt of surprise: "The most radical changes are in the first act. It starts at a party. The Ghost comes to the party - other people merely see Hamlet behaving strangely. Everybody else is euphoric."

Warchus has noticed "the exceptional extent to which the text is laden with 'mother', 'father', 'brother', 'son', 'daughter', 'cousin', much more than 'duke', 'lord', 'majesty' " and ensures that almost all the characters are either friends or blood relations of Hamlet. Despite being a "presence of rational equilibrium", his close friend Horatio, by telling of the Ghost, "opens the door on the story and he is the last, in this version, to speak", words which in their reference to plots and errors, are key to Warchus's interpretation.

For this Hamlet is given to errors, inadequacy, clumsiness in judgment and atrocious behaviour in his summary despatching of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Polonius. Shakespeare may have started with the revenge form, but here we have, says Warchus, human behaviour at its most muddled, rather than the broad brush strokes of the popular genre. Alex Jennings is to be the Prince, chosen as much for his ability to play freshness and youthful ignorance as for his experience in the classics. This, then, is an unheroic, even unsympathetic, Hamlet, allowed only a moment of nobility in his speech to Laertes just before his death.

The sense of waste at the carnage in the last scene should be as clear as ever, but Hamlet will appear more culpable: "He could have stopped at any time. By cutting himself off from Ophelia and his mother, he sinks ever deeper into the quicksand."

Warchus sees Hamlet's dead father in human rather than spiritual terms: "He is a weak man, without grandeur or grace. He doesn't come as a neutral arbitrator but speaks in very personal terms, dwelling on the sexual relationship between Claudius and his wife. He is poisonous from the beginning. Perhaps he wasn't even such a great king; Denmark seems happy with Claudius."

Polonius, meanwhile, receives sympathy for his anxiety about Laertes in Paris. By the Nunnery scene his spying on Ophelia is explained as a symptom of his fear that his family is to blame for Hamlet's madness.

Warchus's version may not be helpful to those struggling with the text, but it promises to be an exciting introduction and a source of stimulating new thinking for old Hamlet hands.

Tickets: 01789 295623

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