Steven Pimlott's modern-dress production is the epitome of "Director's theatre". It's good to report that it works brilliantly. Consistently inventive and surprising, it remains true to Shakespeare's text, and presents the corrupt world of Elsinore and Hamlet's mental anguish with admirable clarity.
The style is unrelentingly contemporary. There are rifles and automatic weapons, camcorders and video screens. Fortinbras has deafening air cover for his march on Poland. Polonius and Claudius are despatched with pistol shots. The play opens with searchlights sweeping the audience.
This is a state under threat, and one that keeps a watchful eye on its citizens.
On the remodelled, huge, bare stage of Stratford's main theatre, Pimlott creates an all too believable modern political world. Claudius's courtiers greet him with enthusiastic hand-clapping. In their pin-striped suits they pointedly resemble New Labour apparatchiks. But Pimlott gives their allegiance a cynical twist. At the play's end, they welcome the new ruler Fortinbras with a mirror image of how they saluted Claudius.
That cynicism characterises the presentation of virtually every character. Larry Lamb is a personable but patently dishonest Claudius, who progressively cracks up under pressure. He remains devious to the very end. In the fencing match, he switches the rapiers himself to ensure that Laertes, his other political opponent, is also killed.
Alan David's excellent Polonius is an archetypal buraucratic spymaster. He carves out his precepts to Laertes like tablets of stone, and instructs Reynaldo in clipped, self-assured assertions. But he is obviously not quite up to the job. In one hilarious moment he turns vehemently on the audience and demands accusingly "What was I about to say?" like a stern schoolmaster blaming his students for his own forgetfulness.
Samuel West delivers a memorable Hamlet, quite unlike the traditional stereotype of a noble prince. He shares a joint with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and sits in the grave in matey conversation with the Gravedigger. In jeans, T-shirt and black leather jacket, he is a modern adolescent rebel, full of disgust for the corrupt world he sees around him.
West dazzlingly brings out Hamlet's contradictions. He is in turns close to suicide, elated, sardonic, vulnerable, and comic. He spits viciously in Ophelia's face. Yet always he tries to reason out everything he experiences, and West delivers each soliloquy with compelling logic, straight to the audience. That style typifies the production. Every opportunity is seized to involve the audience and to remind them they are watching a play. Here the play really is the thing. In the "purpose of playing" speech Hamlet literally steps out of role, the house lights go up, and the speech becomes a lecture to the audience.
Box office 01789 403403RSC Education provides a residential course for teachers on Hamlet, June22-23. For details, tel: 01789 403462.