By Portillo, Michael
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4687
Old Vic, London SE1
In 30 years of seeing Hamlet on stage and screen, I have never been more absorbed or moved than by the production playing at the Old Vic. Trevor Nunn's decision to cast very young actors as Hamlet and Ophelia produces a new take on the play--one that is perhaps nearer to what Shakespeare intended, as the text hints that the Prince of Denmark is 18 years old.
Nunn presents him as a morose adolescent passing through his anger phase. He wears a stupid ski hat, and sits hunched and uncommunicative. He is given to weeping and wipes away the snot with the back of his hand. He is at an age where the thought of sex between adults disgusts him, and he moans not only about how his mother has remarried, but how she used to hang on her late husband, "As if increase of appetite had grown/By what it fed on". He is very bright, and has picked up a few ideas at the expensive German university that he attends; but this gangly youth is, by his own admission, no Hercules. A ghost arrives to tell Hamlet that the man who now sits on the throne and sleeps with his mother murdered the prince's father, and orders him to take revenge. The announcement is hugely distressing and the lad breaks down, overcome with horror, disgust and a sense of his own in adequacy. There is no puzzle in this production as to why this very young man hesitates repeatedly before killing Claudius. Would Prince Harry, for example, simply take the ghost at his word and set off to commit regicide? It seems entirely believable that Hamlet instead finds a remote spot and a bottle of barbiturates and sits down to contemplate suicide ("To be or not to be").
Ophelia (played by Samantha Whit-taker) is a schoolgirl and a clever-clogs teenager, a pretty thing who is into makeup, loud music, hipster jeans, midriff-exposing tops and swivel-eyed mimicry behind her father's back. She is not as innocent as she looks, and twists men round her finger. She finds Hamlet weird, but does not seem overly put out by his antics until he kills her father.
The other characters are also correspondingly younger than normal. Claudius (Tom Mannion) and Gertrude (Imogen Stubbs) are nouveau types who dress hideously in white clothes and sports gear, and cannot keep their hands off each other. You would want to check out if they were staying in your hotel. …