In his ‘Love Song’, T.S. Eliot’s ageing bank-clerk J. Alfred Prufrock protests he isn’t ‘Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…’. David Farr’s new production sets out to put this to rights. The result is indeed a very strange affair. It is built around Jonathan Slinger, who last season starred memorably as Prospero in The Tempest and as Lenny in Pinter’s The Homecoming. A little further back he’s been Macbeth in a curiously Popish staging by Michael Boyd and Richards II and III in Boyd’s great Histories sequence.
A less Eliotian conceit is the director’s notion that Hamlet is about sword fighting or, in this modern-dress interpretation, specifically fencing. The RST’s deep thrust-stage becomes a chill gymnasium, armoured on every available wall with the cutlery of the sport and the egg-like wire masks customarily worn by the participants. Could there have been dramaturgical input from the RSC’s previous chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, himself a sometime champion jouster with foil and épée?
Executed to perfection by designer Jon Bausor, the gym features at the rear a small curtain stage, the whole suggestive of a leisure facility in a Danish barracks. You know it’s Denmark because of an Elsinorean castle painted on the backdrop for ‘The Mousetrap’, and because Ophelia and Laertes sport the patterned knitwear popularised by detective Sarah Lund in TV’s Nordic epic The Killing. Stark fluorescent lighting for the more violently physical enactments, softer tones for the Court. Little surprise that at Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding party the guests, dancing in slow-motion, had forgotten they were still wearing their wire masks.
This is sadly symbolic of the unmemorable characterisation of Horatio, Laertes and the here less-than-supporting male roles. Polonius is an unmitigated bore, the matronly Gertrude beyond comprehension. As Claudius, the elegantly suited Greg Hicks, usually so compelling, seems even more unsettled than Hamlet, rattling distastefully through his words as though wishing to be rid of them. Pippa Nixon’s bluestocking Ophelia is squashed to silence by the self-obsessed men, madness and a white wedding-dress releasing her spirit too late and showing just how much they’ve lost.
A faceless black mask stares out at you from the front cover of the programme book. Fair enough in that Hamlet is ever a blank space craving habitation. The possibilities are inexhaustible, the only certain thing being that no matter what the setting or who the supporting cast, the play is Hamlet and the actor has nowhere to hide.
It’s perhaps not altogether clear whether Jonathan Slinger is giving us Prufrock as Hamlet, or Prufrock’s dream of investing his every neurosis in Hamlet, nor does it greatly matter. With characteristic swaying gait, his dark-suited bespectacled figure arrives in the gym and settles down at stage front to take notes while the guard is surprised by the first appearance of the Ghost — Greg Hicks as, you guessed, a spectral swordsman. At the wedding feast Slinger’s a dejected, scarcely articulate figure, galvanised into life only when he comes face to mask with the Ghost. The rage that this releases is that of the infant trapped within the grown man, and this is indeed what Slinger, soon abandoning his glasses and affecting a fencer’s carelessly flapping jacket, expresses most powerfully right through to the end.
Slinger is a virtuoso of the petulant, explosive and often tearful mode. Many of the more thoughtful lines are delivered with a moving simplicity as though new-minted, but too often the text is pulled apart with hesitations and false, wild emphases. His staccato, twitchy delivery and manic gesturing is the embodiment of everything he warns the Players against. Doubtless this is an intentional, if misguided, irony but is exposed for what it is by Cliff Burnett’s Player King and his exemplary, deeply moving delivery of the Hecuba speech.
Slinger is always a charismatic performer. The trouble is simply that his physique and charisma are those of the character actor, not of the heroic, lyrical lead. If I may borrow from Wagner, he’s a natural Mime or Alberich, not a Siegfried, Lohengrin or Tristan. His is a scrupulously thought-out embodiment of the Dane as a dysfunctional middle-aged child, every inflection of a tantrum perfectly orchestrated. But the heart and soul are scarcely to be glimpsed. You applaud the virtuosity but miss the inwardness and are barely touched. Maybe this just proves Eliot right all along and that Prufrock, ‘At times, indeed, almost ridiculous — Almost, at times, the Fool’ would be wise to give Hamlet a miss.