What is the collective noun for productions of Hamlet? A brood, perhaps? There has certainly been a brood and a half in the past 12 months. At Edinburgh, the Catalan director Calixto Bieito gave us an anarchically slashed-about version that reimagined Elsinore as a sleazy modern nightclub called the Palace. Jonathan Kent brought his visually ravishing all-male Japanese staging to Sadler's Wells. And Trevor Nunn's youth-oriented production at the Old Vic presented the hero as a skinny, vulnerable modern kid, sulking in his beanie. At the Riverside Studios, in west London, there was The Al-Hamlet Summit, an intriguing Arabic adaptation, transposed to a 21st- century Middle Eastern state ruled by a Westernised, dollar- worshipping usurper, in which Hamlet returned from the voyage to England as an Islamic fundamentalist and Ophelia cracked up and became a suicide bomber.
And now, in his long-awaited first production as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd engages with the Great Dane as his contribution to this year's festival season of four tragedies. The result is a powerful but strangely divided affair: a fluent, intelligently politicised account of the piece, in Elizabethan dress, with a startlingly old-fashioned performance from Toby Stephens at its centre. If Boyd takes the unfashionable approach of attending to the historical circumstances at the time of the play's composition, his leading performer reverts to the past in a different and less considered manner, taking to the stage as though he were some throwback Victorian tragedy-king.
I talked to Boyd, during rehearsals, about the thinking behind the production. A forthright Scot, he expatiates on his ideas with a huge, enlivening confidence, his discourse peppered with graphic turns of phrase, as when he declares that one good reason for setting the play in the Elizabethan period is that it "enables you to dramatise the goat-like tetheredness" of the father-dominated Ophelia. He's profligate with shrewd insights, pointing out, for example, that "the show trial of a duel at the end is Claudius' reply to the play-within-the-play that Hamlet had used to bait him. It could not be more OK Corral-esque." Both of those episodes are superbly staged.
One of the most striking features of the production is Greg Hicks's splendid, nightmarish ghost. Instead of the usual stern but fatherly figure, in the "fair and warlike form" of his living self, old Hamlet here hauls himself into the play as a bowed, deathly- white, half-naked spook, with hollow red sockets for eyes, scraping his broadsword along the ground to nerve-shatteringly ominous effect. He hawks up his speeches in an agonised vomit of vengefulness. That he seems to hail from an alien belief system as well as from another world is entirely deliberate.
By the time Hamlet was written and performed, the concept of purgatory had been discredited as a Catholic invention and a money- making racket designed to line the coffers of the papacy. Boyd has been inspired by Stephen Greenblatt's recent book Hamlet in Purgatory, which highlights the tragedy's unsettling premise: "A young man from Wittenberg, with a distinctly Protestant temperament, is haunted by a distinctly Catholic ghost." Or, as the director puts it, "There has been a political and intellectual revolution, and then Hamlet re-encounters the past in the shape of his father's spirit and has to negotiate with it."
By making the ghost such an overt manifestation of discarded doctrine, the production intensifies the sense of the hero's dilemma. The idea of Purgatory gave the living the consolation of feeling that they could do something for the dead, but as evidence for its existence, the ghost is decidedly dubious. What penitential spirit could possibly demand the sin of blood vengeance from his child? "Henry VII set up gazillions of monasteries and chantries to pray for the souls in purgatory," Boyd points out. …