Review of Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre
Kenneth Branagh comes back to the Royal Shakespeare Company where less than a decade ago we were all hailing him as the brightest new star of the age.
And in doing so with this momentous Hamlet - his third stab at the role if you count his recent radio version - he reclaims the crown I had thought was all but lost.
Thoses of us who had prophesised that he had turned the shining promise of a career into a mass-marketing gold-mine are having to digest a slice or two of humble pie.
When last I saw him disguised in the black robe of the Prince of Denmark I could not help but concur with the ghost:'Oh Hamlet, what a falling off was there'. Now, however matured both emotionally and physically, he is undoubtedly the great Hamlet of our time. I have seen none to match him in many a season.
The muffin face of his youth now has a commanding gravitas. The voice can soar the verse to the heavens or draw us into his innermost thoughts by its quiet confiding.
The marvellous set speeches come as newly-invented; the dangerous mood-swings between the wintery grief of his earliest scenes to the tightrope journey he hazards between feigned madness, careful cunning and deeply felt wounds are expertly charted.
Yet to dwell entirely on the splendour of his performance is to do a gross injustice to the man who made it posible. Director Adrian Noble's entire production - 4.1/2 hours long and set in a stiff Edwardian court - is so full of similar felicities the narrative fairly flies by on wings. Clear, true and totally comprehensible to the dullest soul. Seldom have I understood so powerfully the deep family ties at the hart of his play; father and son, sister and brother, son and mother. Nor is Mr Branagh alone in his personal triumph. The cast reads like a catologue of excellence.
Jane Lapotaire's Gertude, a sensuous elegant beauty destroyed before our eyes by the terrible reality with which her son all but rapes here; John Shrapnel, a stocky, persuasive Claudius unafraid to put in the boot below the belt - even when Hamlet is strapped up in a strait-jacket; Joanne Pearce, a brightly eager Ophelia tipped over into a crazed and vengeful tranvestite by the enormity of all she has endured. The roll call goes on.
And Bob Crowley's simple yet splendid setting set the seal on this extraordinary powerful production which miraculously manages to marry inner-truth with the grand theatrical gesture.
As for Branagh's Hamlet, I cannot recommend its brave authority or emotional dexterity too highly or applaud it too loudly.