Stratford Offered A Violent Hamlet By New Director

Stratford-on-Avon, England, June 4th - T.S.Eliot's complaint that Hamlet's emotion is in excess of his given circumstances certainly applies to Trevor Nunn's new production at Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Theater.

Mr. Nunn scored his first success here with The Revenger's Tragedy, and he has now dug down to Hamlet's blood-soaked roots in the revenge tradition. In the first court scene, the sense of corruption hits you full in the face, and David Waller's boot-faced Claudius embarks on a demagogic speech of self-justification. There are no extenuating human circumstances in this poisoned atmosphere. It calls out quite simply for one decisive act of retribution.

Hamlet and the Player King

Into this clear-cut situation Mr. Nunn inserts the most complete Hamlet I have ever seen. The one black-clad figure in a white sheepskin court, Alan Howard keeps you guessing for the whole evening. By turns a simpering child, a smooth courtier, a slack-jawed idiot and an exultant conspirator, he never shows more than a succession of masks. The best clue to his reading is in the platform stage erected for the play scene, on which Hamlet also goes through a whole series of transformations. He is, in short, an actor improvising from one moment to the next, play-acting as much in soliloquy as in contact with other characters.

As a performance it is immensely exhilarating, but it connects with the rest of the production only in its brutality, including the most savage slaying of Polonius I have ever seen. I doubt whether Mr. Eliot would have gone on to compare this Hamlet to the Mona Lisa.

Irving Wardle

New York Times, 5.6.1970.

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It was obvious that when Tony Richardson and Nicol Williamson last year staged their controversial Hamlet, first in London and then New York, no other production of the play, at least for a few years, would be able to ignore it. Trevor Nunn in his new Hamlet had not ignored it; he has offered an alternative to it.

Mr. Richardson suggested a fiercely unconventional, dissident Hamlet. Mr. Nunn, as if in reply, provides a severely classical Hamlet. The Danish court is dressed all in white, with only the malcontented Hamlet in dirty black. In Alan Howard's hands Hamlet becomes once more reflective, rather than introspective, and indecisive, rather than neurotic.

Mr. Nunn lets us have a great deal of Hamlet, opening up many customary cuts in a successful effort to concentrate on cogency rather than speed - there is even a certain leisureliness and now unfashionable grace to Mr. Howard's Hamlet.

Surrounding this Hamlet is a Danish court of unsurprising corruption, led by the bluffly lecherous Claudius of David Waller, the decently troubled Gertrude of Brenda Bruce and the pedantically garrulous Polonius of Sebastian Shaw. The only one to break through this charmed circle of classicism is Helen Mirren as one of the most spirited Ophelias for many a year. In a tastefully low-key production, she stands out as one unwilling to lower her voice.

Clive Barnes

New York Times, 3.8.1970


Playing Shakespeare/Hamlet