The last Hamlet I saw was the Donmar/Jude Law version last year and Law was surprisingly good, but not quite as good as the RSC/David Tennant production of 2008. This time John Simm steps up to the plate at the wonderful Sheffield Crucible theatre and there was a lot hanging on this production.
In the first scenes Simm seemed to playing Hamlet as quite young and vulnerable but this was soon left behind for a more mature, philosophical student and the character felt more isolated than other versions I've season. There is some good and bad in that. Firstly the good, the lighting was designed so that rather than round spotlights they were square.
When Simm was delivering soliloquies the squares of light in which he stood were quite small, almost prison-like and an effective devise.
But the flip side of the coin to the ultra isolated Hamlet was that there seemed to be little warmth or closeness with Horatio (Colin Tierney), his friend, the one he can trust, the constant. And this was a problem for me as it rendered Horatio to little more than a messenger.
There was a lack of intimacy elsewhere in the production too. The doting mother that Claudius comments on in the second half of the play appeared in words only. It was interesting, that in the cast Q&A afterwards, Barbara Flynn who plays Gertrude commented on how the size of stage and small cast meant they were encouraged to spread out to fill it. (NB there are 14 in the cast, the RSC had 22 and Donmar 20)
The decision to limit intimacy was a conscious one and I think to the detriment of the production, particular demonstrated in the closet scene. Even the pictures of Old Hamlet and Claudius Hamlet gathers for his mother to compare were placed so far apart as to be a realistic, unless of course you don't want someone to draw too close a comparison but I hardly think that is the case in this instance.
I'm all for understated performances, indeed I have an aversion to overly stagey acting but at times the energy seemed to flag at times and the lines delivered with little depth. This all sounds really bad so I must qualify that these are occasional negative observations rather than the whole.
There was light and darkness in the choice of cuts and inclusions too. I loved the fact that a director, Paul Miller, cut the mimed bit of the players scene. Even when done very well, it has always felt superfluous when the same story gets repeated with words moments later.
But I missed the "do you think I'm as easy to play on as a pipe" section just after the players scene which I think is quite an important passage in demonstrating that Hamlet is canny to what is going on. Indeed Simm did a superb job of playing wise to the fact that he knew Polonius and Claudius were eavesdropping on his conversation with Ophelia.
Overall it was a good Hamlet, not a great Hamlet.
And as I can't defer to upthewestend.com which does a wonderful job of aggregating reviews, here is a quick round up of my own:
Charles Spencer writing in The Telegraph gave it two stars and said "In comparison with David Tennant, John Simm seems like a boy sent to do a man's work."
Lynne Walker for The Independent gave it four stars describing it as a "smooth transfer from 'Life on Mars to death in Denmark"
And What's On Stage gave it three stars commenting: "My prime reaction to Paul Miller’s tidy and workmanlike production of Hamlet for Sheffield Crucible is of disappointment, for what seemed likely to be inspired casting creates little magic and the interpretation of the play remains oddly detached and bloodless."