Michael Portillo - The silent prince

Theatre - A visually ravishing production never quite finds its voice, writes Michael Portillo

Stephen Unwin's Hamlet, which has now reached London's West End, is a thing of beauty. On the tiny stage of the New Ambassadors there is no set to speak of. The production relies on gorgeous visual compositions. At all times Unwin arranges his actors - leaning, crouching, lying - in tableaux that remind us of 17th-century paintings. The impact is reinforced by superb costumes (by Mark Bouman) mainly in subdued autumnal hues, and by strong horizontal light. From the first moment, when soldiers dressed in dull silver armour and bearing muskets take their midnight watch against a black sky, we are in a visual world that could be by Velaz-quez. In indoor scenes, a leaded window will suddenly appear in the blackness, allowing dusty light to stream in, accentuating the impression that we have stepped into a canvas.

It helps, too, that Unwin has assembled a good-looking cast. Ed Stoppard (Hamlet), Alice Patten (Ophelia) and Ben Warwick (Laertes) are young enough to be unusually credible in their parts. No wonder such babes are terrified, living through the bloody and unnatural events unfolding around them.

Hamlet presents huge challenges, not least in how to apportion all that madness. If Hamlet starts his histrionics too early, we shall all have reached our limit long before the three hours and 20 minutes are up. Unwin's solution is to ban all hysteria from the first half (which ends just after the play scene). The prince scarcely raises his voice in the early acts.

So Stoppard soliloquises conversationally, which works well in such a small auditorium. He releases his emotions through the body with well-judged movements about the stage, or by raising a pointed finger or running both hands through his hair, when static. His voice is attractively hoarse, though his phrasing can be disconcerting: he puts the emphasis on "fardels" ("Who would fardels bear?") as though it were the most important word in his "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

Ophelia is similarly constrained before the interval. Patten appears almost motionless, with her head bowed. It serves to emphasise that the girl is submissive to her father and brother (and perhaps to Hamlet's advances), but it offers the actress little scope.

Fortunately for her, and for Stoppard, the cuffs are removed after the interval. Patten makes up for lost time in her lunacy scene. She gives force to Shakespeare's bawdy lines with an egregious display of sexual aggression. In parallel, Stoppard becomes extremely violent towards his mother in the bedroom scene, which is very well done. The death of Polonius, stabbed in the head through an arras that's as thin as gauze, is a wonderfully dramatic moment.

The second half is, therefore, a success; but by then the production has paid a price for all that restraint before the interval. It has become difficult to believe that Hamlet is really suffering the calamities of his father's violent death and his mother's supposed adultery with the murderer.

In this production, where every line is delivered audibly and intelligently, it is striking how focused Shakespeare was on what happens to our souls after death. The Ghost tells us that he was killed without having confessed his sins, and is evidently stuck in purgatory. Hamlet fears that the Ghost may be an evil spirit urging him to commit murder and so luring him to hell. He decides against suicide because it is a mortal sin and death may bring not sleep but eternal torment. He forgoes an opportunity to kill Claudius when he thinks he is at prayer because he does not want to despatch him to heaven. Hamlet hesitates to take revenge because he does not want to be damned, but wants Claudius to be.

There can surely be no greater men- tal anguish than that. But Stoppard does not always convince us that he is really beset by that unbearable mental torture.

It is also a pity that Patrick Drury declaims the Ghost's speeches in an exaggerated manner, but he is much better as the Player King. The marked resemblance between the King and Queen in the play and Claudius and Gertrude sitting in the "audience" works very well. David Robb as Claudius has an annoying habit of raising the tone and volume of his last line in every scene before rushing off, but otherwise he is solid and convincing. He makes us feel the terror of a man who has committed sins that cannot be expiated.

Michael Cronin gives measured performances as Polonius and then as the Gravedigger, anchoring all the scenes in which he plays. Warwick, like Stoppard and Patten, enjoys the second half more than the first. Anita Dobson as Gertrude rises to the challenge of the bedroom scene, moving well between indignation at Hamlet's behaviour and remorse over her own.

This production may not be the most enthralling of all time, but it is wonderfully clear and straightforward. That makes it a pleasure to hear as well as to look at.

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This article first appeared in the 06 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Where did it all go wrong?