Theater Review: Hamlet, by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Newcastle)

As part of my Shaksespeare Week in September, I saw all four current Shakespeare plays that the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) was producing in Stratford-upon-Avon. I had previously seen As You Like It and Titus Andronicus, and enjoyed the Hamlet so much that I wanted to see it again, so I took advantage of the fact that the RSC shows some of their plays for a short time in Newcastle, about an hour and a half from York, where I live, to see it again last night.

I won’t give a full review of the play; you can read the review I wrote in September. But I will discuss some elements of the play that were different, or that seemed different.

First, I had great seats. In the front row, just to the right of center. I had booked seats in row B, and was happy to be in the second row, but it looked as though the first row of seats had been removed as the stage hung over the actual stage a bit. Here’s what I saw:

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The main difference between the Newcastle performance and the Stratford version was the stage. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford has a thrust stage, which juts out into the audience, and the actors play to spectators on three sides. The Newcastle Theatre Royal is a standard proscenium arch stage, so the actors were only playing to the front of the stage. This seemed to change quite a bit. There was less movement; the actors were less fluid, as they didn’t need to turn to play to all the angles. Especially for the many soliloquies; Hamlet – and Claudius, in his speech before praying – stood for the most part at the front of the stage.

I was sitting in the fifth row on the side at Stratford, and I saw As You Like It from the first row on the side as well. For other plays at Stratford, I was sitting a few rows back, more or less to the front of the stage. One thing I noticed at Stratford was that the actors didn’t make much eye contact with the audience, or, if they did, they were constantly looking at different people all around them. But here, on a standard stage, they shifted their eyes between the front row and the mezzanines. This was the case for Jonathan Slinger, who played Hamlet, but also Claudius, and some of the other actors. Hamlet’s many soliloquies felt very personal, as Slinger often looked at me, or my girlfriend, sitting next to me. In fact, he fixed his eyes on her when he said, “Frailty, thy name is woman.”

After the play, discussing it with my girlfriend, we both agreed that the actors seemed more relaxed than the first time. It could be that they’re at the end of their run, and are less stressed by the performances, or it could simply be that, over time, they’ve fully internalized their roles. While I thought that Jonathan Slinger, as Hamlet, overshadowed the other actors when I saw the play in Stratford, the rest of the cast seemed much more present at the Newcastle performance. Pippa Nixon was notably excellent as Ophelia, even more so than the first time I saw her in that role. She truly owned Ophelia last night.

Another thing I noticed – both with last night’s Hamlet, and with the other plays that I saw twice this season – is that it really pays to see a good production twice. You notice things you might not have spotted the first time, and you can better appreciate the choices made by the actors or the director. I left the theater with a much better appreciation of Jonathan Slinger, and his Hamlet, and the entire RSC company.

Unfortunately, this is the last performance I’ll see of this season’s productions, but I have another RSC date to look forward to in a week: Richard II, with David Tenant, in Stratford. This is the first RSC play that will be filmed and broadcast to cinemas in the UK and around the world, and I hope all of these plays will also be released on DVD (or sold on the iTunes Store), so I can see them again whenever I want to.