There's a scrum of autograph-hunters, a few squeals and squeaks, and lots of flashing cameras in the darkness around the stage door of the RSC's Courtyard theatre in Stratford. There were similar scenes last year in the West End for Orlando Bloom. This time they're waiting to see if Doctor Who has successfully regenerated back into David Tennant after three and a half hours on stage as Hamlet. What I saw on Monday was the fourth preview, and official press night isn't until August 5, so my judgment on Tennant's performance and the rest of Gregory Doran's new production may be a little premature, but I don't think anything of substance is likely to change between now and the end of the Stratford run in November. After that, the production will switch from the exciting thrust stage of the Courtyard to the boring old proscenium arch of the Novello theatre for a few weeks in London in December and January. So here's my verdict in a nutshell: it's a good production, well worth seeing, but David Tennant is disappointingly one-dimensional as Hamlet.
After seeing the RSC's thrilling histories series at the Roundhouse in London in April and May, I was very keen to get inside the Courtyard for the first time and see where the plays were conceived. The Courtyard is the company's temporary home while its main theatre over the road is demolished and rebuilt. (The RSC has studiously avoided using the word demolition, preferring to call it a transformation, but that's effectively what is happening -- and quite right too. Of the old brick 1930s auditorium, it looks as though only the though the facade and one or two other elements will remain.) This is a modern dress Hamlet performed on a shiny floor that echoes the mirrors at the back of the stage. The opening ghost scenes are lit by electric torches bouncing off the floor, and the court scenes are accompanied by elaborate chandeliers; otherwise there's no scenery or furniture, apart from a pair of gilt thrones for the players's scene and some equally tacky gilded boudoir stuff in Gertrude's bedroom. The design by Robert Jones and the Ruritanian-Scandinavian costumes make coherent sense, and the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes is a proper fencing bout with rapiers and masks. Greg Doran is a director I admire greatly, and probably the RSC's safest pair of hands. All his productions are highly intelligent and are staged with absolute clarity; he's a director who thinks not just about the experts who have seen Hamlet dozens of times, but about the people who are seeing the play for the first time. And he seems to give the actors enough space to develop their own interpretations, rather than laying down the law and forcing them to fit in with his preconceived ideas. There are lots of inventive touches, such as Ophelia finding contraceptives in her brother's suitcase as he heads back to France, complete with his fencing gear. Horatio wears a worn corduroy jacket with leather patches on the elbows, pinpointing him immediately as an underpaid university lecturer from Wittenberg, who's probably teaching a course on Renaissance tragedy. Hamlet has a flickknife in his pocket, though he despatches Polonius with a revolver taken from his mother's bedside cabinet. The only scene where the director's approach seems to me to miss the target is the players' performance of the story of Gonzago, which seems to have strayed in from some other production, being over-elaborate and over-designed. At the end of the scene there's a radical departure from the usual interpretation of how Claudius reacts to the portrayal of the murder; instead of showing guilt and panic, Patrick Stewart's arrogant Claudius strides across to Hamlet with a look of contempt that shows his patience with his stepson has been finally exhausted. Stewart, after playing Prospero, Antony and Macbeth in quick succession, is once again magnetically watchable as Claudius, turning the usurping king into the central focus of the action every time he comes on stage; there's a great moment when his mask of composure slips for a second when he's told that the crowd is cheering Laertes for king. The only jarring note comes when Claudius kneels to pray ('my offence is rank'), an action that seems strangely out of character for this supremely cynical politician. The other outstanding performance is by Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius, a part he seems to have been born to play. Once he was eliminated from the action (shot behind a mirror rather than stabbed behind the arras as Shakespeare wrote it) I really missed him. There's also a strong performance from another RSC veteran, John Woodvine, as the Player King.
And how did David Tennant cut it as Hamlet? In one sense, he's already fulfilled his role for the RSC by making sure every seat for every night of the play will have a bum on it. He's a good stage actor, but on this evidence, not a great one. I last saw him about six years ago in Lobby Hero, an American play at the Donmar in which he gave an excellent performance as a naive young security guard. Since then, most of his work has been on TV, culminating in his roaring success as Doctor Who. In the early scenes of the play the audience sees him curled up in a foetal position in despair, or standing in cold isolation on the far corner of the stage, curling his lip at Claudius and Gertrude. Tennant's Hamlet is sardonic, sarcastic, flippant and jokey; but somehow this spoilt adolescent, prancing around barefoot with the players' fake crown perched sideways on his head, never quite develops into anything else. In the final scene there was a telling giggle from the audience at the line 'I am dead, Horatio' which indicated that the tragic dimension was failing to work as it should. The key to the part should be in the soliloquy scenes, where Hamlet talks not to the other characters but to the audience. Tennant gazes at the audience as he speaks, but never really communicates with them or feeds off their reactions. Shakespeare's soliloquies are a tough assignment for any actor, and it's possible that given time Tennant will relax enough to forge that magical relationship with the audience which great actors achieve. I couldn't help wondering how the two stars of the RSC Histories cycle, Geoffrey Streatfeild (Henry V) and Jonathan Slinger (Richard III) would have managed it. When I interviewed Streatfeild recently he told me that after two years of rehearsal he was only just working out how to deliver the soliloquies to an audience. Tennant isn't bad as Hamlet, but he doesn't (yet) bring out the many different dimensions of the role. I'm being tough on him because the RSC is the Rolls-Royce of British theatre and their work consistently hits such a high standard. I was reminded of Ewan McGregor's Iago at the Donmar last year -- another very talented Scottish actor who has probably spent too much time in front of the camera to be able to hone the different skill of working in front of an audience. I'll be interested to see what the critics make of Tennant when they turn up in Stratford next week. And no doubt there will be comparisons with Jude Law when the Donmar's Hamlet opens in London next May.