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RSC returns to Newcastle - but Hamlet left me cold

As the RSC return to Newcastle, David Whestone takes a look at their latest Hamlet

Jonathan Slinger stars as Hamlet
Jonathan Slinger stars as Hamlet

What a pleasure it was at the weekend to welcome back the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Theatre Royal, its principal ‘home in the north’ for more than 35 years.

Fans and friends may have been feeling a little overlooked in recent years but 2013 sees the semblance of a proper season taking shape once again.

For many young people this was their first encounter with Hamlet, the tormented prince whose uncle killed his father and then married his (Hamlet’s) mother.

Hamlet can be many things - forceful, fey, hyperactive or immobilised by indecision.

He can wield a pistol (Alex Jennings) or slop around in pyjamas (Mark Rylance). He can enunciate beautifully while looking soulful (Sam West) or be alternately daft and dangerous (Kenneth Branagh).

These were my RSC Hamlets before Friday night and the men in whose footsteps Jonathan Slinger was obliged to tread.

David Farr sets his telling of Shakespeare’s tragic tale in a shabby gymnasium, the fencing foils on the wall a sharp portent of things to come. The date? I’d guess the 1920s or 30s, largely from Pippa Nixon’s bobbed and tweedy Ophelia.

The gym has the look of an old parish hall. Most of the characters come crashing at high speed through the time-served doors although the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears through the walls with an electric crackle and a flash of neon, a ninja-like figure in fencing gear and of greenish hue.

He’s played by Greg Hicks who also plays Claudius, the usurping king. I preferred him as the ghost, his Claudius lacking the substantial blustering menace I associate with the character.

As Hamlet, Jonathan Slinger starts off moody and snivelling but gravitates towards the hyperactive.

He greets Ophelia with a smacking great kiss on the lips which looks anything but affectionate. In similar cool fashion he later berates his mother. Horatio, of course, is greeted warmly but this is not a Hamlet I could warm to.

Even in his reunion with Yorick the jester, now just a skull in the gravediggers scene, I sensed no deep-seated sense of loss.

It’s an impressively energetic performance, full of verve and with every line carefully calibrated and nuanced. But as my son - on his first Hamlet - said afterwards: “There were no likeable characters in it.”

Is anyone in Hamlet meant to be liked? Maybe not. But for me, Slinger’s domineering and unsympathetic Prince of Denmark is not the one to back the argument that it should be so. Neither will he usurp my favourite (Branagh, since you ask).

That said, theatre is live - here today, gone tomorrow. For the youngsters, this will be their yardstick for all future encounters with a famous character.

Hamlet is on until Saturday. Then come As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well.

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