Fall into grace;Theatre;Set play

5th February 1999 at 00:00
HAMLET. Directed by Laurence Boswell. Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267 222) March 18 to 27

Young Vic, London (0171 928 6363) April 1 to May 15.

Paul Rhys played Edgar in Richard Eyre's production of King Lear at the National Theatre in 1997 and he regards that experience as useful preparation for Hamlet. Edgar is neither politically aware, nor a soldier, but he has to restore moral order in the play by killing his scheming brother, Edmund.

Rhys has been expected to play the Prince of Denmark since he was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and now, at 32, he is ready to do so. His approach to the text is meticulous and, even before rehearsals began, he had made some significant decisions.

He believes Hamlet has a tendency to mental instability before he meets the Ghost and that the encounter "shakes him at a profound level. It is a very violent thing". The word-play and taunting of Polonius that follow are not, he believes, play-acting: the idea that Hamlet could be pretending to be mad "belittles the cost of the tragedy on him".

He believes Hamlet does slide into madness, that he becomes thoroughly depressed between meeting his father's spirit and his exchange with Ophelia in the nunnery scene. "They are in love. It is a serious relationship, and part of the cause of his depression is her rejection."

Hamlet's relationship with Gertrude is, for Rhys, the most important in his life, however. He says suggestions of incestuous feelings between Hamlet and his mother miss the point. "That is too superficial - he wants to save her soul."

For him the closet scene is central to an understanding of the play - it contains all the themes of the story. Here relationships between the main characters are discussed, the Ghost reappears and revenge is carried out, albeit mistakenly, when Polonius is killed. Even that underlines the repeated idea that things are often not what they seem in the court at Elsinore.

Hamlet is, says Rhys, at his lowest ebb during the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, contemplating suicide. Then the Players' play gives him proof of Claudius's guilt and he sees a chink of light - killing can be morally justified now he has proof. Hamlet is sent to England after killing Polonius and returns in a mental state Rhys identifies as quite different. He is ready to face his own death, able to justify killing in revenge. "He dies in a state of grace."

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