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Ben Whishaw's Hamlet - the hallelujah moment

37a_04_HAMLET_243x258 As fantastic as David Tennant and Jude Law were and as good as all the other Hamlet's I've seen on stage and screen, something has always not been quite right: It's the actor's age.

There is much debate about how old Hamlet is which is pretty much divided between those that go for 30 and those that go for a teenager. It seems to be dependent on which folio of the play you read as well as interpretation.

In all the versions I've seen where his age has been pinned by the gravedigger in the Yorick scene as thirty, Hamlet having been alive as long as he's been in the grave-making profession, something just rankled a little. He's referred to as 'young Hamlet' and as a 'youth' frequently and there is something in his behaviour that I've always felt made him young, not immature necessarily but not having the maturity of 30 years of life experience either.

And these feelings are vindicated now I've finally seen (at the V&A theatre archives) Trevor Nunn's Hamlet which was performed at the Old Vic in 2004 and had a 23-year-old Ben Whishaw in the title role. 

It was a hallelujah moment for me. It was like the piece of the play clicked into place. Whishaw is a young Hamlet: vulnerable, sullen, moody, disobedient, cheeky and delicate. It all works so well. I could forgive him his inaction and prevarication a lot more readily as an inexperienced youth.

Arts-graphics-2008_1128919aHis early grief is intense and raw as to render him so delicate that I feared he would be crushed easily by Claudius. It's interesting that much later in the play as Hamlet is finally spurred into action and accidentally murders Polonius that Nunn chooses to have Claudius beat him in a scene that feels almost like a parent losing control with a fractious child momentarily.

As the RSC gave it's Tennant/Hamlet production a youthful feel so did Nunn and it worked really well, even better I'd say. Ophelia is a school girl. Hamlet looks like he is wearing his Dad's jackets teamed with ripped jeans. Much of the dialogue felt more conversational sometimes like youthful banter.

The key soliloquies were delivered straight without the grandiose melodrama of some performances sometimes like conversations with the audience rather than introspective musings. It may well be because I'm becoming so familiar with the play but it didn't always feel like I was listening to 16th-century English verse.

Whishaw more than met expectation moving through a spectrum of emotions with a breathless intensity. Indeed I haven't seen so much snot since Juliet Stevenson in the film Truly Madly Deeply. Imogen Stubbs plays a young flirty Gertrude to the older Claudius who treats her like a trophy wife.

Rory Kinnear, who is to get his own stab at Hamlet later this year at the National (if you'll excuse the pun) plays a convincing Laertes and Samantha Whittaker makes a great debut as the smitten Ophelia.

The next production of Hamlet out of the trap is likely to be John Simm in Sheffield. He's going to have to pull a very big rabbit out of the hat after this.

And here is what some of the critics said at the time:

Michael Billington in the Guardian gave is three stars feeling that the youthful production left something wanting:  "What this Hamlet lacks is irony, reflectiveness and any sense that he poses a real physical danger to Claudius"

What'sOnStage gave it four stars liking the youthful interpretation: "Whereas before we might have thought ‘what’s that bloke moping about for at his age’, we now have more regard for a Hamlet who has suffered terrible loss at such a young age, trying to cope with emotional upheaval when he’s still learning how to be an adult."

And Charles Spencer in The Telegraph loved it saying it made him look at the play afresh: "Oh that this too solid flesh would melt" is delivered through tears and snot and I have never heard "To be or not to be" - during which he contemplates knocking back a bottle of sleeping pills - spoken with such freshness and depth of feeling.

There's a nice Guardian interview with Whishaw and Samantha Whittaker (Ophelia) by Kevin Spacey which was conducted during rehearsals

Edit 14/10 The V&A screened this Hamlet with an introduction by Sir Trevor Nunn where he talked about the decision to cast a young Hamlet.