REVIEW: Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre ★★★★★

Tom Hiddleston stars in Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh. It is being performed for a limited three week run in a small space, with just 160 seats. Few more than 3000 bums on seats throughout it’s run, if my calculations are correct. On top of that you can not just buy a ticket, oh no, you apply to enter a draw and, if your name is picked out, you are allowed to buy one. No press tickets, no showing a film of the production at a London cinema and definitely no sneaky previews on Channel 4. I was blessed to have succeeded in the draw.

There have been three recent Hamlet productions, each with a super popular leading actor and an exceptional producer. There was Benedict Cumberbatch’s version, directed by Lyndsey Turner (about which I was not impressed). There is Andrew Scott’s brilliant production, directed by Robert Icke, intelligent, with clever humour and the use of close circuit television to emphasise the story. Scott directly engages the audience in a most cerebral way, full of humour and intensity. He talks directly to the audience.

Now there is Tom Hiddleston’s version which takes place in such a small space that close circuit television would be superfluous. It is however, the best of the three. Less the tortured soul and more a man of decisiveness. Less a one man show and more an ensemble wonder.

The opening scene begins with Hiddleston, alone in the middle of the stage, singing the opening lines while accompanying him self on an old upright piano. Excellently done. The final scene with the sword fencing was truly thrilling. Between these two extremes, the production was perfect and mesmerising.

Ophelia was light years ahead of any other that I have seen, you felt like saying “oh yes, I get it now” and bursting into tears on her behalf. She was played by Kathryn Wilder who has recently appeared in Branagh’s Romeo & Juliet, The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade at the Garrick. This Ophelia is no shrinking violet, she is a young woman badly hurt by Hamlet, the love of her life, and by the violent death of her beloved father. Kathryn takes the audience by the scruff of their necks and holds their attention. She has grabbed back the importance of the part.

Nicholas Farrell, as the new King, Claudius, was calmly immense. Much more three dimensional than those of Cumberbatch’s or even Scott’s. No need for camera close ups. A guilty man without doubt, but not a monster. A modern king, not a warrior.

Sean Foley as Polonius was hilarious. Why have I never realised before how excruciatingly funny his part is? How is it that a slight change in emphasis can cause the entire audience to roar with laughter.

It is Hiddleston’s first attempt at playing the ill fated prince. But, what a fantastic production to begin with. He is inspired.

Branagh and Hiddleston collaborations have occurred over a number of years. Wallander on tv ( in case you did not notice Hiddleston appeared as Detective Jan Martinsson) and together in Chekhov’s Ivanov. Not to mention the monster hit movie, Thor directed by Branagh with Hiddleston as Loki.

The rest of the acting and creative team are made up of actors from the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and RADA. They include the excellent writer and actress Lolita Chakrabarti, playing Gertrude.

The production is raising money for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and is one of the hottest theatrical tickets of recent years. Branagh’s company is staging the show in order to support the transformation of RADA’s Chenies Street premises. Like Branagh, Hiddleston, was a RADA graduate.

There is no point in recommending that you pop along to RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, you will not get a ticket. We can only hope that Branagh repents and has at least one performance filmed.

Reviewed by Graham Archer
Photo: Johan Persson