A new star is discovered in Ben Whishaw's Hamlet directed by Trevor Nunn
“Youth to itself rebels.“
This is Sir Trevor Nunn’s first Hamlet in thirty years and the publicity machine leapt into action to emphasis the youth of his cast, actors who are, or have just been students, playing Hamlet and his contemporaries, also students. It is of course a tremendous risk to take with Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy to entrust the huge and demanding role of the Prince of Denmark to Ben Whishaw who is only 23 and barely out of RADA.
London has had some excellent Hamlets in recent years, Adrian Lester, Paul Rhys, Sam West, Simon Russell-Beale and rumour has it that Ralph Fiennes may be planning to replay Hamlet, not this time in Hackney, but for Adrian Noble. So why is it that the press are full of stories about the talented, young Ben Whishaw?
His entrance as the troubled son is clever. The court are dressed in white, he is all in black, his thighs stick thin, his cheeks hollowed, a black knitted cap on his head. He picks up his chair and in a show of peevishness moves it to the other side of the room away from his mother and his uncle-step father. This serves to emphasise the isolation and alienation Hamlet feels when faced with his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage”. It is an emotional experience watching his body hunched against the pain of betrayal, distressed and with tears in his eyes, and I was impressed and affected. Ben Whishaw handles the role remarkably well. He can speak the verse and he is utterly convincing.
Imogen Stubb’s Gertrude simpers and flirts her way through the first act but she improves during and after the bedroom scene when her dressing table drawer opens to reveal a concealed whisky bottle and a drink habit. Her fondness for alcohol gives a wonderful new interpretation to Claudius’ cry in the duel scene of “Gertrude, do not drink!”; the problem being as much her alcoholism as the poisoned cup. In the vigorous bedroom scene (they chase each other round the bed) Stubbs is suitably admonished by her son and seems genuinely remorseful from then on.
I disliked Tom Mannion’s Claudius with his bottled blonde streaks and white track suit. True, he is a thug surrounded by security guards but I never believed that he and Gertrude were a couple. It is also doubtful that this young and slight Hamlet could be a real threat to Claudius’ throne. Nicholas Jones’ speaks Polonius’ lines, surely the most used of what has sadly become Shakespearean cliché, in the freshest way I have heard for years, as if he really is speaking them for the first time. Ophelia (Samantha Whittaker) has the difficult role of a schoolgirl in school uniform, out of her depth and more interested in music than listening to her father and brother’s advice but I liked Rory Kinnear’s solid Laertes.
I liked Ben Whishaw’s performance more than, on this occasion I liked Nunn’s modern dress production. I winced at the fitness scene when Gertrude and Claudius fresh from the tennis court, eat breakfast in their gym kit. Rosencrantz (Kevin Wathen) and Guildenstern (Edward Hughes) arrive with their back packs like students on a journey but along with Horatio (Jotham Annan) pale beside Whishaw’s exceptional talent. Nunn has picked up on the many references in the text to youth in this play pre-occupied with death. John Gunter’s design is suitably minimalist but with a sweep of a tall staircase to give some depth to the castle of Elsinore set.
At almost four hours this is not Hamlet Lite but a young and enthusiastic crowd who may have found in Ben Whishaw a Hamlet for their age and hopefully the Old Vic has found a new audience.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Director: Trevor Nunn
Designer: John Gunther
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
Sound Designer: Fergus O’Hare
Music: Steven Edis
Movement: Kate Flatt
Running Time: Three hours 45 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Old Vic on 31st July 2004
The Old Vic
London SE1 8NB
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Old Vic on 28th April