Review: Hamlet (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts)

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts made headlines in September with their production of Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Tom Hiddleston as the Danish prince. Both Branagh and Hiddleston, along with being two of the greatest living Shakespearean actors, are alumni of the RADA, as were about two thirds of the rest of the cast and crew. Tickets were sold via ballot as the show was performed in the RADA's Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, which has only 160 seats, and ran just for three weeks. I was lucky enough to snag tickets for my mom and I to see it while she was in London moving me over here and I couldn't have asked for a better first experience seeing a professional production of Shakespeare.

There were many who criticized the show for its exclusivity, however, it was a fundraiser for the RADA and thus was performed in one of the RADA's theatres, hence the small size. This also explains why it didn't provide press tickets -- any press members wishing to see the show had to battle for tickets just like anyone else because it was seeking to raise funds, not get great reviews. (Because of the time change, I had to get up at 5am to get my tickets.)

I felt that the small venue gave the piece an intimacy that worked very well with the material. At one point, I actually made eye contact with Hiddleston from my seat in the third row. There wasn't a bad seat in the house and the proximity of the actors made it even more gripping.

One of my favorite things about the production was that Branagh decided to cast several of the traditionally male roles as women. This seems to be a recent trend, as I've seen in done in productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company too, and it's one I highly approve of. Horatio became Horatia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern became Rosacrantz and Guildastern, and Marcellus and Bernardo became Marcella and Bernarda. This helped even the ratio of men to women in the cast and I thought it was a lovely touch since it didn't alter the story at all.

Another strength was the combat scenes. Hiddleston is truly a wonder to watch in stage combat and the scenes were endued with an energy and a reality that made the audience momentarily worry about the safety of the characters. It appeared more like combat than stage combat. The production had few weaknesses in my mind, aside from perhaps Nicholas Farrell's King Claudius being a bit flat at times.

The women of the production were absolutely stunning. RADA-trained Lolita Chakrabarti gave Gertrude such an earnestness and a genuine worry about her son that it made the queen's despair quite touching.

Similarly, Kathryn Wilder as Ophelia truly pulled at the audience's hearts. I was astounded to learn that she only graduated from the RADA two years ago. Her Ophelia was bright, happy, and affectionate without a sign of weakness. I loved that they played a genuine affection between her and Polonius and Laertes and made the scenes in which they warn her about Hamlet's intentions seem more like teasing than actual disapproval. Her madness was unsettling--as it should be--and heartbreaking. Ophelia has always been one of my favorite characters in all of Shakespeare and I feel so lucky that I got to see such a wonderful, strong portrayal for my first time seeing Hamlet live.

Surprisingly, I felt that one of the strongest performances was that of Sean Foley who played Polonius. He struck a perfect balance between seeming foolish and seeming like a statesman, which made his Polonius seem like someone you could find in government today. His open affection with Ophelia and Laertes endeared him to the audience as more than just a comic figure, so that you felt genuine sorrow when he was killed. I enjoyed that he played a Polonius with the best of intentions as it provided a foil to King Claudius.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Hiddleston was an astounding Hamlet. I'm always interested in an actor's choices around Hamlet because there are so many to be made: is he actually mad? Does he, or did he ever, love Ophelia? Hiddleston's Hamlet was intelligent, profoundly sad, and filled with fury. While some Hamlets seem like sullen teenage boys, his had a rage that simmered under the surface and leapt out in some scenes. He played a very physical Hamlet, both in embracing friends frequently and slamming tables. He was the sort of Hamlet that had you a bit on edge about what he might do next; there seemed a real danger in him despite the semblance of a noble man.

Hiddleston's monologues were lovely but he really shined in scenes with the show's actresses. His relationship with Horatia was touching; in very few scenes, they managed to portray a true depiction of close friends. In scenes with Gertrude, he exuded a betrayed feeling. And he was stunning in his scenes with Ophelia. It was clear that underneath a mask of madness, he had real concern for her. I've never heard the "Get thee to a nunnery" line delivered as he did it; it seemed a warning to her to flee Elsinore before bad things occurred, not a dismissal or an insult.

All in all, the RADA Hamlet was a unique and thoughtful production of Hamlet, if not an overly original one. Though somewhat classical, it also made some radical choices with its casting of females in male roles. Hiddlestone was every bit as brilliant a Hamlet as might have been expected, with a strong supporting cast, many of them not many years out of the RADA. My only regret is that the production wasn't filmed to raise more money for the RADA as DVDs certainly would have sold well.

You can also check out my video review of the production, paired with my review of Much Ado About Nothing: 

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