A few years ago the most we Brits knew about Denmark was that it produced exceptionally good bacon and was the setting for Hamlet - one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.
Lately its fashions (quaint-patterned woollies and turtlenecks) and its grisly murders (in hit TV series like The Killing) have pushed the Scandinavian country onto the front pages.
Director David Farr has made a bit of a killing himself by using the zeitgeist to set the RSC’s latest production about the unhinged prince of Denmark in the royal’s homeland of the 1960s when everyone young dressed in Faroe Island pullovers and everyone else wore drab suits that made them look like dull civil servants.
The exception here is the elegant and eloquent Stratford veteran Greg Hicks, taking on the dual role of Ghost and Claudius, and who manages to make even a standard fencing outfit look Savile Row. He must be a dream for costume departments to work with.
His suave manner and beautiful diction almost succeeds in making us believe Claudius is much maligned and misunderstood. Lucky old Gertrude (a very regal looking Charlotte Cornwall) in marrying him twice. It’s such a shame that Claudius’s driving ambition brings about such tragedy. Happy families this ain’t.
This Hamlet is angry and violent and totally lacking in any finesse. Jonathan Slinger won over the audience I sat with – indeed earning a standing ovation – but I wasn’t convinced. He’s a great character actor but no leading man.
He starts off giving us the usual demented Hamlet, grief-stricken that his father has died, and then he unleashes a torrent of rage that terrifies his best friends – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – and puts his lover Ophelia (Pippa Nixon rocking the woolly pully Sarah Lund look) in fear for her life. No wonder the poor girl is driven mad.
There are some fine and memorable speeches in Hamlet but Slinger is so possessed that most pass unnoticed.
It was good to see Robin Soans’ trusted advisor Polonius played less for laughs despite having dialogue that exposed a real problem with verbal diarrhoea.
Instead you pay attention to the little things like Hicks’ twitchy hand and slo mo movements when he appears as the ghost and the inventive direction of the players’ scene that has a bit of punk thrown in to their royal performance (too early surely?).
Oh, and the motto, dimly lit above the dais – mens sana in corpore sano – A sound (or healthy) mind in a healthy body. There’s nothing very sound about anyone’s mental health in this story.
But what most takes your attention is Farr’s obsession with fencing. The duel is a key part of the story but it’s taken much further in this production with the ghost dressed ready to kill; stately-robed courtiers in odd black fencing masks; most of the story set in the palace’s fencing hall and Hamlet spending most of his time attired in a grubby white fencing outfit.
The final swordfight scenes are riveting and incredibly realistic (must be such fun to perform). They are a credit to the expertise of the cast – Slinger and Luke Norris as an avenging Laertes – and fight director Kate Waters.
This is a Hamlet that is hard to ignore. It’s passionate and visceral and, despite being more than three-and-a-half hours, zips along at a cracking pace before delivering a no-holds barred confrontation, mass murder and mayhem which the Danes do so well. Shakespeare knew his people.
Hamlet runs in rep at Stratford-Upon-Avon until September 28. It’s just 90 minutes from this area and the town and theatre are well worth a day’s outing if not a minibreak.