Review: Tom Hiddleston is a huggy Hamlet in Kenneth Branagh's stagey production, RADA
RADA's Hamlet (l-r): Eleanor de Rohan, Caroline Martin, Tom Hiddleston and Ayesha Antoine. Credit Johan Persson
A spotlight picks out Tom Hiddleston's Hamlet sat at an upright piano. He plays and sings; the lyrics are familiar and it takes a second or two to place them - these are Ophelia's words taken from when she is lamenting the death of her father. Giving these words to Hamlet is interesting not least because opening the play with the Prince mourning his father death reminded me of how Tom Hiddleston's friend Benedict Cumberbatch opened his Hamlet with a similar display of melancholy.
It is not the last we see of Tom Hiddleston's varied talents, later he will dance with 'Rosacrantz' (Ayesha Antoine) and 'Guildastern' (Eleanor de Rohan), picking up Rosacrantz and spinning her around and later throwing her onto the sofa for 'japes'. He's a lively Hamlet and a huggy Hamlet, throwing his arms around Horatia (Caroline Martin) and his friends when they arrive, then later Ophelia (Kathryn Wilder) and hugging tightly his mother (Lolita Chakrabarti) in the closet scene - he even hugs Laertes before the start of the duel. There is a lot of passion in those hugs.
And, in his skinny black jeans with black pea coat collar turned up - or hoodie or tight t-shirt - he cuts a dashing figure, his lean, muscular frame combined with his energy is an altar to health and vitality. He may be wearing black but you can picture him still going for long runs or to the gym to work out.
But, and this is where the Tom Hiddleston fans may want to turn away, there is otherwise little sign of what is going on beneath the surface of this Hamlet. There are sparks of affection - a lovely tender moment between him and Ophelia for example - but I didn't feel him. Yes, he shouts and gets angry but he gives little in his performance that would tell you what is really going on in his head. Likewise with the soliloquies; they are technically flawless but I didn't feel like the tears or sentiment came from anywhere deep. I've laughed, cried, been frustrated by, been afraid of and afraid for Hamlet in past productions but for Tom Hiddleston's I didn't feel anything. The blame for this, I think partly lays in the direction.
The RADA theatre is small, just three rows of seats around three sides of a performance space - no raised stage - and yet it felt like the production had been directed for a huge West End theatre with the actors playing to people sitting in the gods. There was an opportunity to do something intimate and subtle as befitting the space (and the exclusivity of the production) but instead, it often felt stagey, the delivery of the lines given the sort of reverence that feels a bit dated now. Perhaps I've been spoiled by recent productions, Robert Icke/Andrew Scott and the RSC's with Paapa Essiedu, in particular - which were fresh and contemporary, delivering the text in a more natural way that made you forget it is 400-odd years old.
Choosing to have Hamlet's friends as all female is certainly interesting. He is touchy-feely with them which raises questions about whether there is history (is he a ladies man?). By the end of the play, if you count Gertrude and Ophelia, Horatia is the only one whom he's treated well. Ayesha Antoine's Rosacrantz has a little sass - and Ophelia too when released from the constraints of 'sanity' - but they've all been pushed around.
Polonius (Sean Foley) can't decide whether to just be a wittering old fool or an out and out clown. The former felt more successful than antics like falling over the back of chairs. Osric's (also Foley) appearance felt more like he was there to fill the clown vacuum created by Polonius' murder and slowed down the run-up to the denouement, particularly given where the interval falls. It was a long first half, nearly two hours, and pausing when Hamlet is sent off to England means there is quite a big gap before Tom's Hamlet rejoins the action in the second half.
Points must be awarded for the sword fighting which was slightly terrifying in such a confined space but given Tom Hiddleston's athletic build and Laertes' more rested physique it was always a one-horse race and blatant cheating was the only way he was going to get close.
All in all, I'm not going to lie, I was disappointed. Given that this is most likely the only Hamlet Tom Hiddleston is going to do, I wish it had been a better production, I wish it had fresher ideas, I wish it had been directed by someone else. Given his body of work, I think Tom can do better than this too. That said, there were plenty in the audience who seemed to lap it all up and he got a partial standing ovation.
* If you haven't had a chance to see it or for comparison, I can't recommend enough the RSC's latest production with Paapa Essiedu which is having a London run next year at the Hackney Empire.