Fit for a prince

David Tennant is mesmerising yet baffling in an eccentric production



Greg Doran's new production of Hamlet is crystal clear, breathlessly energetic and, at over three and a half hours, ceaselessly exciting. David Tennant's prince is, as in the best productions, a very modern man. It may be his unruly emotions forcing him to ask the new, existential questions, but it is his intellect that enjoys playing with them. Delivering the longest part in Shakespeare, the current Doctor Who did not mess up a single phrase and he won our hearts. Yet, for all his brilliance, I still do not understand his Hamlet - or Doran's Hamlet.

This is particularly strange because Tennant, I think, went to some trouble to make clear that the Dane does not go off his rocker. He is playful, spiteful - a dab hand at taking off his elders' voices - but never deranged. He is, as we would expect from Tennant's doctor, very funny, although, thank goodness, Tennant deploys a far wider range of facial gestures than on TV. You can smell his intelligence. Yet his sanity seems countertextual to me.

At the play's opening, the Ghost is seen by everyone. He is an undeniable fact from which Hamlet dare not flinch: in consequence, his father's orders are clear. But in his mother's chamber only Hamlet sees the spectre. Why would Shakespeare have written that scene the way he did, if not to show that by this stage Hamlet had temporarily lost it? Yet Tennant talks to Gertrude here with perfect limpidity, a son and mum levelling with each other.

Peter Brook has proved that you can remove the political context entirely from the play and it will still make sense. Here, Hamlet's encounter with the Norwegian army on a plain in Denmark ("How purpos'd, sir, I pray you?") is crucial for his transition to a man whose thoughts are henceforth bloody or nothing worth. So why is he in such skittish high spirits for the final fencing scene? I know it feels good to have made up your mind, but surely not that good. And why did Doran cut Fortinbras's fine speech at the end about accidental judgements and casual slaughters when Norway has figured throughout in any case?

Some of the revisions are welcome. Contradicting current scholarship, Hamlet wishes his too, too "solid", not "sullied" flesh to melt. Current scholarship is bunk. What kind of flesh, solid or sullied, is it more vivid to imagine resolving itself to a dew? And breaking the play for an interval mid-scene, just as Hamlet is apparently about to murder Claudius, is canny. On the other hand, placing To Be Or Not To Be in Act II before the players' catalysing arrival (as, apparently in the First Quarto of the play) imposes a through line from uncertainty to resolve that does not reflect Hamlet's intellectual and moral see-sawing.

I'd prefer not to write off these concerns as quibbles. They are important and even add to the richness of the experience of seeing this version, for on the way home your mind is racing and debating the eccentricities. But you would be exhilarated anyhow by performances that make sense of each line, if not of the entire play. As both the Ghost and Claudius, Star Trek's Patrick Stewart is sensational. He is funny: he shakes his head at Hamlet after the Mousetrap as if to say, "Tut-tut, you've lost it, mate." He is immensely smug and irritating (when he dies you want to cheer), but in his chapel scene he is actually sympathetic. The marvellous Oliver Ford Davies brings out all the humour in Polonius (and when Shakespeare puts jokes into a tragedy you need to play them). Penny Downie plays Gertrude as a woman who has closed herself down to everything but a quiet life and is then rudely awakened. Peter de Jersey is a wonderfully solid and loyal Horatio. Only Mariah Gale fails to do much with Ophelia, but I have come to the conclusion that the part is unplayable, at least so far as the mad scene goes.

Doran directs with exuberant theatricality. The dumb show becomes a grotesque drag act, for instance. He is aided by Robert Jones's design for a plain, Elizabethan stage, covered with mirrors at one end so the audience sees itself as part of the drama. Tennant, as I say, is a force of nature, perhaps the least self-indulgent Hamlet I have ever seen. You never understand his Hamlet, but you can't take your eyes off him either. It was not only Who fans who stood to applaud him at the end.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Katie Mitchell bravely plunges into unfathomable Woolf.

Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray
Sadler's Wells, London EC1
The director makes a pact with Wilde (from 2 September).

Birmingham Rep
Simon Stephens's hit, fresh from Edinburgh (from 3 September).

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis