It’s the dead of night outside a crumbling school hall, and a spectral visitor has returned from the flames of purgatory to relay a tale of horrifying treachery.
So begins Hamlet, which ignites this year’s Royal Shakespeare Company season in the North East.
Jonathan Slinger’s interpretation of the young Dane at first seems like an odd treatment, disappointing in fact, as he appears on stage in thick glasses and a dark suit looking more like a 40-something Woody Allen than a classical hero.
This rapidly changes, however, and a fire-bellied Hamlet, clad in fencing garb, emerges after the prince’s encounter with his father’s ghost.
The nincompoops of the national press, corpulent on their own pomposity, jaded from too many miles on the theatrical clock, spirits numb from years of complimentary gins and tonic, have not been the kindest to this latest production.
Among criticisms are that Slinger’s Hamlet has too much fury, and is too sarcastic.
This, I feel, somewhat misses the point.
Here is a man whose father has been killed by a usurping uncle, who has compounded the felony by marrying his mother just weeks after the funeral.
Here is a scholar, an intellectual heavyweight running rings round the likes of “old fool” Polonious and other emissaries of his treacherous uncle.
And for me, Slinger still manages to convey Hamlet’s inner musings, strife, depression and philosophising, and create a rounded character with which the audience sympathises.
The actor is at a distinct disadvantage, however, destined to be upstaged by Greg Hicks, who plays the part of both Hamlet’s uncle and his father’s ghost.
Hicks is among the world’s best Shakespearean actors. Regular RSC fans will remember him most recently from his powerful portrayal of King Lear at the Theatre Royal in 2010.
Graceful, slick and powerful, he handles both spectral father and murdering brother with equal aplomb.
While the play has been lauded as one of the greatest masterpieces written in the English language, Hamlet is not renowned for its brevity.
Any production should therefore be marked on how well it propels the audience through the plot, and this one managed admirably.
We must not forget Hamlet was written to entertain as well as a vehicle for poetry and musings.
It’s a tale of treachery, revenge, madness, love, loss and war which transcends history, location and iambic pentameters.
This production remembers that, and makes the most of every ounce of drama.
The play within a play scene is the best example of this. Its explosive working blends medieval music and theatrical devices with hard rock riffs and stylised performances, dragging any drifting audience members back to a heightened state of alertness.
The productions set resembles a crumbling school hall-cum-gym, complete with distressed beams, decrepit wall bars, dingy stage and decaying flooring – which is left in a further state for the final scenes after Fortinbras’s troops dismantle and carry off chunks of the fittings and fixtures.
The state of Denmark is not only rotten but rotting.
The layout allows for fluid action, with perfect depth to allow for the frantic fencing bouts of the final scene, space for Hamlet’s famous soliloquies and the curtain of the school hall stage making an apt arras for the killing of Polonious.