Review: Hamlet (Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, RADA)

It was the theatrical event of the summer – but almost nobody actually got to see it.

By bringing together the irresistibly British pairing of luvvie icon, Kenneth Branagh, and heartthrob du jour (if a little more divisive post-that Taylor Swift vest), Tom Hiddleston, RADA ensured that their Hamlet joined the ranks of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton as a production designed to generate the same levels of hysteria as a One Direction concert crossed with a really, really cute puppy.

This Hamlet was produced to raise money for the world-class drama school, with profits going towards projects such as a major refurbishment of the estate and access schemes for budding actors. Running in RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, which only has 160 seats, tickets were allocated through an online ballot and were enormously over-subscribed. Those of us who had managed to beat the odds congregated in the foyer well in advance of the 7.30pm start time, clutching our paper tickets with a mixture of unbridled glee and terror that we’d somehow be refused entry at the last minute.

Following in the footsteps of fellow budding national treasures, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott, Hiddleston steps into the role of Hamlet with a naturalness that reinforces the place of the role in the acting canon – for an actor of Hiddleston’s stature and experience, playing the Prince of Denmark has become a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’. The play begins with him sat at a piano in near-darkness, singing Ophelia’s grief-stricken lines from later in the play – “And will he not come again?” – in a mood-setting opening that doubles as a sly wink to the fans who have found themselves only inches away from their crooning pin-up.

However, to reduce Hiddleston’s performance to his undeniable physical stage presence is to do him, and the show itself, a disservice: before the opening scene is over, it becomes clear that this is an ensemble production, designed to give every member of the cast their moment of significance, from the highly silly and sympathetic Polonius (Sean Foley) to the scene-stealing gravedigger who uses human skulls as percussive instruments (Ansu Kabia, who also plays both King Hamlet and the Player King). Renowned stage veteran, Nicholas Farrell, provides a masterclass in speaking the Bard’s verse as the morally decrepit King Claudius, while newcomer Kathryn Wilder ably holds her own as Ophelia, slipping between crude gestures of madness and flashes of gut-wrenching sanity as she deals with loss after loss.

Branagh makes some creative casting choices, employing multi-rolling and gender-swapping to add a modern nuance to the text. As well as a female Rosencratz and Guildenstern (here played as Rosacratz and Guildastern by Ayesha Antoine and Eleanor de Rohan), Hamlet’s most loyal companion is brilliantly reimagined as Horatia (Caroline Martin). The chemistry between Hiddleston and Martin elevates scenes that can easily drag, with Horatia’s unwavering faith in Hamlet giving their final exchanges a delicate tenderness and sorrow.

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Hiddleston himself brings both intense charisma and palpable melancholy to the title role. Glimpses of the king that might have been – he captures the essential nobility that inspires unyielding loyalty in his close companions – are undercut by darker qualities, such as the unforgiving streak that leads him to send his old friends, Rosacratz and Guildastern, to their deaths. Hiddleston’s Hamlet is determinedly not mad; yet, by choosing to behave so, he brings out the comedy inherent in his bizarre behaviour, throwing the resulting pathos into sharper relief. At one point he appears brandishing the Danish flag, his face painted in the colours of his favourite football team; at another, he slumps on a sofa reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. Yet, when he rejects Ophelia and commands her to a nunnery, his genuine, pained affection shines through the mask of madness. The light in his eyes is only extinguished when he realises that she has broken his trust by allowing her father to overhear their conversation. In an instant, his love turns to cruelty.

Branagh’s direction works seamlessly alongside James Cotterill’s set design to reinforce the changes afoot in Denmark. King Hamlet’s portrait hangs stage right, above a clearly demarcated door, his figure face on and serious, while Claudius’ portrait is positioned stage left, above a secret hideaway in the panelling, his body turning away and his face twisted into a smirk. It’s through this hidden doorway that Polonius is fatally stabbed, with Claudius’ self-satisfied expression hanging above the dying man in sharp contrast to Hamlet’s instant remorse.

A rug, adorned with the royal crest, covers up most of the stage; after seeing his father’s ghost, Hamlet crawls under it in a frantic bid to convince Horatia to swear silence while he enacts his revenge. The subtext is clear: this is a Hamlet unafraid to dig beneath the glitter and gloss, to reach the messy, gritty reality beneath.

Hamlet was playing at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, RADA, from 1-23 September.

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