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Hamlet (1980)

The Oxford Times, 11th July 1980

I cannot pay John Barton’s production of “Hamlet,” which has now been added to this year’s repertoire of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, a greater compliment than to say its virtues still made themselves felt despite the physical and aural torture I was subjected to by the “lady” sitting in the seat behind me.

She persistently kicked the back of my seat through two of the more than three hours’ playing time of this production. Comparative sanity was restored after retreat to another seat.

Why some people go to theatres often passes comprehension, but then first nights often seem to bring out this sort of behaviour – comparable to that which invariably inflicts us during the visits to Oxford of the Glyndebourne Touring Opera.

Mr Barton’s production of “Hamlet” is a blessed relief from the ‘relevance of our times’ affairs which we have seen, some honourable exceptions apart, with depressing frequency at Stratford and elsewhere during the past few years.

Unlike several of his RSC directorial colleagues, Mr Barton is not a gimmick man where physical action is concerned. Although he has, at times, been criticised for textual tampering, he can scarcely be accused of this where the present production is concerned, for he has used a commendably full text – especially, for instance, where Polonius, the Gravedigger and Osric are concerned.

On the evidence of this “Hamlet” he also strongly suggests, again unlike some of his producer-colleagues, that Shakespeare knew what he was about and should be allowed to speak for himself.

The result is a production of which the RSC can be proud and which one can confidentially recommend to subsequent visitors to Stratford, especially to those who may be encountering the play for the first time, since its actions and the motives and relationships of its characters are clearly illuminated. I can say this with complete confidence, all seat banging apart, on which I estimate my experience of close on 80 productions of the play.

Michael Pennington’s Hamlet is a distinguished addition to the roll call of Stratford and other Hamlets, and does much to mitigate, if not entirely to banish, the painful memories of some other irritating Stratford Hamlets of recent times – those of Ian Bannen and David Warner in particular.

Mr Pennington has the bearing and demeanour of a prince and, when his emotional turbulence and anguished response to human and political corruption allows him to do so, can behave like a gentleman.

His voice is always expressive and responds with confidence to the passions it has to speak, is musically aware of the structure and rhythms of the verse and has strong, attacking power, even if it could, at times, be a little more incisive in some of the soliloquies.

Mr Pennington rises admirably to the challenge of the important climaxes of the play, in Hamlet’s livid rejection of Ophelia, his confrontation with his mother, the intent to kill Claudius while he is at prayer, and his later challenge to Laertes.

The wry humour of the role – in the teasing of Polonius, the wily taunting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the advice to the players, the exchanges with the First Gravedigger and the attempts at deflating the tediousness and affectation of Osric – is no less keenly treated.

For the occasion the RSC has assembled a very strong supporting cast. From Tony Church there is a very authoritative performance as Polonius, spoken with his splendid clarity and precision – the fuller text being a great advantage. Here is the over-busy man of court affairs and the suspicious father to perfection, enhanced by a little welcome, spasmodic geniality. My Church never forgets that although Polonius is a crushing bore to Hamlet and the court, he mustn’t be one to the audience.

Derek Godfrey as Claudius and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Gertrude are in a very confident command of their roles. From Carol Royle there is a disturbingly compelling Ophelia convincingly neurotic but, also, and, I think, rightly, erotic. She is high on my list of outstanding Ophelias.

The fuller–than-usual text enables Raymond Westwell, who also appears as the Ghost, to give us a ruminatively-leisurely account of the First Gravedigger and Hugh Ross, playing the role as a sort of bumptious subaltern, to fill out the tiresomeness of Osric. I have only two criticisms – that Bruce Purchase isn’t enough of the “old actor-laddie” as the First Player and that Tom Wilkinson’s Horatio seems to be rather indeterminate.

Shields Gazette and Shipping Telegraph 11th March 1981, Catherine Hansen

The stark, bare set, bereft of all its normal trappings is the first thing that strikes you at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle.

The second is your realisation that your mind is going to have nothing but words and the players to occupy it, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet.

Any doubts that you can maintain such concentration over such a lengthy period, for this is a full Hamlet, are wiped away by the design of Ralph Koltai. Large expanses of inky black void keep bringing you home to the focal point.

And that, of course, is Hamlet himself, played by Michael Pennington. His is a much more impassioned prince, given to wrestling the words out from his teeth, and more dramatic in his seeming madness.

With no tricks of scenery or such things to indicate the supernatural goings on in Elsinore, it is up to him to convey the fear, followed by over powering thirst for revenge.

In amongst these passions, he has no time for his lady, Ophelia, played by Carol Royle. This John Barton production allows credibility for her madness. The reasons for sinking from a sweet young woman in love with the prince to a disordered mind are more evident, her portrayal convincing.

For light relief we look to Polonius and Tony Church and are not disappointed. His doddering Lord Chamberlain is one of the best, with enough go in it to keep you interested while he whiles away.

Normally the humour in Polonius and from the gravediggers counter balances the emotion of Hamlet, but the balance remains tipped in his favour. Even the sweet touches of Derek Godfrey and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as the king and queen don’t alter this. It’s Hamlet’s night through and through.

The Guardian 19th September 1981, Michael Billington

There are as many Hamlets as there are actors. But Michael Pennington’s in John Barton’s fine RSC production (newly arrived at the Aldwych from Stratford) belongs in the front rank. Both sharp-brained and sweet-souled, he is a natural rationalist who views his own blood-thirsty impulses with a self-critical amazement. I felt in Stratford last year it was a hint of the performance to come. Now there is both security of outline and a wealth of detail.

What strikes one most is the constant dialectic between passion and reason. Impelled to vengeance, he whirls his sword above his head like a claymore, sweeps the ground with his cloak and lets out blood-curdling cries; yet he mocks his own rhetoric with sardonic distain. Pennington is not your punk Hamlet, your mad Hamlet or your Lord Alfred Douglas in tights but a man permanently caught between conflicting emotions. Having run Polonius through, it is typical he clasps him to his bosom in loving regret. Even to Laertes at the last his posture is one of gracious apology for him intemperance. There is no such thing as a definitive Hamlet; but Mr Pennington gives us more facets than any actor we have seen for a long time.

He is much aided, of course, by a characteristically thoughtful and illuminating Barton production. Staged on a foursquare platform surrounded by all the needed props (skips, candelabra, thunder-sheets, foils) it highlights the density of the play’s theatrical imagery. But what hits me even more is the way Barton endows almost every one with an active conscience. Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s scarlet-gowned Gertrude, for instance, blends voluptuousness with a horrific realisation of her crime so that in the closet scene (better played that I have ever seen it) she intuitively apprehends the presence of her murdered husband. And although Derek Godfrey is not physically one’s idea of the “bloat king” even he involuntarily shudders as he falls to his prayers.

Barton, in fact, shows the first-rate director’s capacity to rethink the play from top to bottom without distorting it. David Waller’s ashen, great-coated Ghost, for instance, feels no need to shout his story across the battlements but recounts it with a sombre sorrow. Carol Royle’s Ophelia is seen early on strumming a lute which turns up again in a mad scene that releases a pent-up sexual energy. And, most interesting, Fortinbras is not the usual Novello profile, but a brisk, ferocious pragmatist clearly ready to kill to gain a patch of ground. What we have, in short, is a Hamlet that is not the story of a neurotic misfit at a playing card court but one that uncovers all the text’s preoccupation with time, death, the workings of the soul and the very mystery of theatre itself.

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