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