If you were one of those lucky enough to get a ticket, director Kenneth Branagh’s massively over-subscribed RADA Hamlet starring Tom Hiddleston was all about the “intimacy and intensity” of acting craft at its finest, writes Maddy Fry

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Photos by Johan Persson

I’ve often found it comforting that most of Tom Hiddleston’s alter-egos seem incapable of making good choices. Whether it’s the PTSD-inspired alcoholism of Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea or the Shakespearean sibling angst of the Marvel villain Loki, most of his characters are dogged by despair and failure.

Even the nefarious Prince Hal of The Hollow Crown and the enigmatic Jonathan Pine at the centre of The Night Manager go through considerable travails before fulfilling their true purpose. It seemed apt that director Kenneth Branagh described the Prince of Denmark, that great monument to unfulfilled ambition, as “the role he was born to play.”

For any devotee of Hiddleston, the chance to see him as Hamlet in a tiny central London theatre, nestled within the walls of his old drama school, felt akin to seeing The Beatles at the Cavern Club – the sense of a colossal talent scaled down while losing none of its potency. The result was little short of magical.

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Up close and personal in RADA’s 160-seat auditorium, the play opened with Hamlet sitting in near-darkness at the piano, crooning out a low wolf-howl of defeat.

“And will he not come again?” our hero moaned, lamenting the absence of his father via the heart-wrenching cadence of “No, no he is dead. Go to thy deathbed…”

Hamlet’s alienation and sense of betrayal over his mother’s hasty remarriage was, particularly for those in the front row, frighteningly visceral, made manifest through kicking and screaming, spit, sweat and tears. In turn, Hiddleston masterfully depicted Hamlet’s inability to be what those around him needed – supportive, vengeful, loving, or even just consistent.

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Much has been made of how HiddleHamlet’s madness was undoubtedly feigned; yet the production’s great strength was the ease with which he switched to an all-too-real malice and vindictiveness. His brushing aside of Ophelia (Kathryn Wilder), triggering her fatal sense of abandonment, combined with his shrugging off the deaths of his informant friends, were shocking in their callousness.

Yet one couldn’t shake the feeling that the derangement and loss of control in Hamlet’s eyes after murdering Polonius (Sean Foley) was genuine. The final duel resulting in the Prince’s death, barely two feet from my seat, was no less agonising for its portrayal of one man imprisoned by grief, with its destructive effects spiralling outwards.

The threat of military conquest by Norway always hung in the foreground, but more than anything this Hamlet was about bereavement and family breakdown – the torment caused by our relatives moving on, even if we can’t, and robbing us of any space to heal. Proof, as though it were needed, that Shakespeare speaks to us for the moment we find ourselves in. Few plays have left me waking up sobbing the next day, but the rage, remorse and anguish on display still resonated, to the refrain throughout of “Go to thy deathbed…”

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Yet on the night, for those in attendance it was three hours of uncomplicated happiness. Watching Hiddleston seamlessly recite ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ right in front of me was enough to make me feel thankful for my pulse. As much as I loved Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2015 turn at the Barbican, it couldn’t rival RADA’s Hamlet for intimacy and intensity of craftsmanship.

This performance of Hamlet took place on 20 September 2017 at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London

Comments

  1. Wonderful review. Describes exactly the sentiments of my experience. And I think I was in the same seat :D. To be or not to be recited only a few feet away….. incredible.

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