Aleks Sierz previews a production of a Shakespearean tragedy that takes a fresh look at the play's most important themes.
Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. Royal Theatre, Northampton. March 17 to April 3. Tel: 01604 624 811. www.royalandderngate.com
Hamlet is not only one of the most famous plays in history, it's also one of Shakespeare's most experimental works. It mixes melodramatic revenge tragedy - including ghosts and duels - with strikingly modern soliloquies which reveal the Prince of Denmark's psychology. The play's hero is in turn a royal in mourning, an intellectual philosopher, a disappointed lover and, belatedly, a man of action.
Director Rupert Goold argues for the need to challenge accepted interpretations of the play. "Since Jan Kott published his Shakespeare Our Contemporary in 1964, an orthodoxy has developed which, in contrast to the postwar Larry (Laurence Olivier) and Johnny (John Gielgud) tradition, sees Shakespeare as deeply political."
By contrast, his Hamlet "won't be explicitly political, but more familial."
Aged 32, Goold says that "most people of my generation see Hamlet as not so much about politics as about despair, suicide and having problems with your mother's sexuality".
Aptly enough, his production boasts Jane Birkin in the role of Gertrude, Hamlet's mother.
"Another recent vogue has been to play up the revenge tragedy genre," he says, "and that's fine for Acts I, IV and V, but there's a big chunk of the play when Hamlet does nothing. If you stress his vengefulness, you make nonsense of that. Instead, we went back to postwar Left Bank existential literature, such as The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, which begins with a great quote: 'There is only one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide'. I'm interested in suicide as something that a rational mind can come to, rather than a depressed mind be led to."
Hamlet is the last show before the venue closes for refurbishment. "It seemed apt for us to look at questions about what theatre is, and the closure also gives us an opportunity to change the fabric of the building.
"One of the themes of the play is decay and rottenness, and this will be reflected in the set and in the building's fabric. The world of the play is a theatre, but a decaying one - Hamlet in the ruins."
Hamlet himself should "have vulnerability, and there should be a genuine ambiguity about his madness. Today, the hardest quality to pin down is his princeliness." And what Hamlet "is particularly bothered about is that Gertrude won't grow old gracefully. I'm interested in how youth is now often more reactionary than old age."