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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 19:08 GMT
Strong Hamlet closes Barbican season
Sam West as Hamlet with Sean Hannaway (Guildernstein) and Wayne Cater (Rosencrantz), photo by Manuel Harlan
Samuel West (centre) puts in a powerful performance
By BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes

A strong performance from Samuel West as Hamlet is providing a splendid finale for the Royal Shakespeare Company's last season at the Barbican Theatre in London.

The plain-dress production, set in the modern corporate world by associate director Steven Pimlott, is a fine example of the way the RSC has been able to translate the classics into modern garb.

Pimlott's vision of Claudius as a chairman of the board set among cocktail-swirling acolytes gives the play a contemporary feel that nevertheless seems perfectly in tune with its spirit.

And playing Hamlet and Ophelia as modern disaffected teenagers torn between love and rebellion also rings true to the Shakespearean vision.

Disaffected teenagers Ophelia (Kerry Gordon) and Hamlet (Samuel West), photo by Manuel Harlan
The play is the full four-hour version, with many cuts restored
The open set with its steel trap doors, soldiers with machine pistols and greatcoats, and harsh theatre spotlights highlights its modern feel.

And in the key scene when the Players confront the King with his crime, the use of video cameras displayed on a screen behind the actors allows Claudius's expression to be caught in close-up.

In a bold decision, Pimlott has decided to present the full four-hour version of the play, restoring many of the cuts made by previous directors to Shakespeare's text.

But the pace and timing of the production means that it does not seem to flag at any point.

Indeed, the text is displayed electronically above the stage - useful for the rarely played bits, but distracting as well.

This is no doubting Hamlet. Rather, in Pimlott's vision, Hamlet swings from depressed teenager to decisive rebel determined to destroy Denmark as soon as he sees his father's ghost.

Gertrude (Marty Cruickshank) and Samuel West (Hamlet), photo by Manuel Harlan
West's performance overshadows the female cast members
West's dynamic performance draws a fine rhetorical flourish from each soliloquy, which appear surprisingly fresh despite our familiarity with them.

And as the production gathers strength he wrecks havoc with mother, lover and stepfather alike.

Indeed, if there is one problem with the production, it is that his strong performance overwhelms the other characters, particularly the women.

Neither Kerry Condon's Ophelia nor Marty Cruickshank's Gertude seems to stand out against his flood of emotions.

Larry Lamb's Claudius is more substantial but the comic characters like Polonius also seem to be downplayed in this all-action version of the play.

And the gravediggers scene seems to have lost its comic potential in the longer full-text version.

There is another problem with the text chosen - it seems to modify the final scene by making Laertes rather than Claudius responsible for poisoning Hamlet, thus weakening his final confrontation with evil.

Nevertheless, this is an utterly convincing Hamlet that makes one look at the play with a fresh vision.

Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company plays at the Barbican Theatre in London until 30 March.

See also:

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