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Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at RADA – review round-up

Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at the Vanbrugh Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at the Vanbrugh Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
Fergus Morgan
Fergus Morgan is the winner of The Stage Critic Search 2016
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Yep, you read that right. Yet another Hamlet, starring yet another white British man who either has, or probably will at some point, star in a Steven Moffat BBC drama series. Following Jude Law, David Tennant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott, it's time for old Etonian, Cambridge graduate and star of Thor and The Night Manager Tom Hiddleston to give us his Dane.

Except this is different, because HiddleHamlet isn't on one of London's biggest stages and isn't going to be bottled up and broadcast in the cinema. RADA-alumus Hiddleston is returning to his alma mater's 160-seat Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre to perform in a production directed by RADA president Kenneth Branagh for three weeks only. It's all to raise money for the drama school's regeneration.

And it's about as exclusive as it gets. Tickets – 60% of which clock in at an eye-watering £95 – were snaffled up in a flash through an online ballot weeks ago, with – shock horror – critics being told to join the virtual queue like everyone else.

But how many sneaky reviewers managed to beg, borrow or steal themselves a ticket? And how does Hiddleston's Hamlet compare to those of his illustrious predecessors? Can it possibly match up to the heights of Robert Icke's Almeida staging, or the Brandreth family Hamlet currently running at the Park Theatre in London?

Seeing as you haven't a cat in hell's chance of catching it, make do with Fergus Morgan's review round-up.

Hamlet – HiddleHamlet

Straight to the point, then. Hiddleston has proved himself a capable Shakespearean actor in the past, as a lean, mean Coriolanus in Josie Rourke's 2013 Donmar Warehouse production, and as a compelling Cassio to Chiewetel Ejiofor's Othello at the same theatre in 2007. How does he do with Hamlet? There's plenty of praise, that's for sure.

"His Hamlet is proactive, masculine, edgy to the point of aggression – and definitely, absolutely sane," writes Nataliia Zhuk (Telegraph, ★★★★). "His take on the character is more in line with Cumberbatch’s expressive Hamlet than, say, Andrew Scott’s understated one."

"He makes the role completely his own, emotional magnetic, canny, often frolicsome," agrees Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★). "The words seem natural, effortless."

Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), meanwhile, lauds Hiddleston's "ability to combine a sweet sadness with an incandescent fury" and Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) labels him "an impish prince" who "can flip into rage with alarming swiftness”.

There are notes of negativity, though, Zhuk suggesting that Hiddleston "never quite gets under the skin of the character" and that his soliloquies "can feel too much like beautifully acted words rather than thoughts and feelings experienced by the character, here and now."

"While his delivery of the key monologues is decent enough and there are moments when you can see the tears glinting in his eyes, he really shines when interacting with others," reasons Tripney. "He needs someone to bounce off."

But there's more to this Hamlet than Hiddleston, with fellow RADA alumni and regular Branagh associates making up the ensemble, many in gender-swapped roles.

Nicholas Farrell's Claudius is well-received – "superb" according to Tripney – as is Kathryn Wilder's Ophelia – "striking" says Billington – and Sean Foley's Polonius – "wonderfully vibrant, scene-stealing" writes Zhuk.

Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at the Vanbrugh Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at the Vanbrugh Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

Hamlet – KennyHamlet

Branagh's pretty familiar with Hamlet – he's played the Prince of Denmark himself on stage, on screen, and on the radio over the course of his career, even taking on the role during his own time at RADA in 1981. But what do our handful of intrepid critics make of modern-dress, Scandi-noir directorial efforts here?

It's a pretty straightforward take on the play, most agree, Tripney labelling it "location aside, a fairly conventional" production and Billington remarking upon the staging's "traditionalism".

"In a year in which Robert Icke and Andrew Scott have unstitched the play and filled it with grief-steeped radiance, this production can’t help but feel pedestrian in comparison," explains Tripney. "But then it’s not out to break the wheel, rather to make the most of the intimacy of the space, and present a Hamlet in close quarters."

And it sure does that. "The audience are only ever a couple of meters away from the action, which lends this modern-dress production a special kind of claustrophobia," describes Zhuk, while Treneman simply lauds a "terrific production".

And, unlike other recent interpretations, this is apparently a humorous Hamlet; "Branagh introduces as much mirth as it can take," reports Treneman. "There are tinges of farce, with doors a-slamming."

"A wry edge is present in the smallest details," agrees Zhuk. "Hamlet, while discussing “words, words, words” with Polonius, is reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive."

Hamlet – A wider conversation

So, Hiddleston's Hamlet, ticket ballot, critic shutout, exclusive access and all – a good thing or a bad thing?

As far as the production goes, it's a decent enough show, Billington writing that "even if it rarely shocks one into new awareness, it has clarity, swiftness and, in the person of Hiddleston, a compelling Hamlet with a genuine nobility of soul", and Tripney admitting that although it's "in no way an era-defining Hamlet", it "suits the space it was made for".

But the conversation has extended much wider in the past few weeks, far beyond the reviews. Back in August, Matt Trueman argued that he didn't enter the ticket ballot himself because "the show just doesn't feel like it warrants a review". The fact that it was first and foremost a fundraiser, and that the show would sell out positive reviews or not, helped make up his mind.

Mark Shenton, looking beyond the immediate commercial impact of reviews, feared that the refusal to admit critics could be the start of a worrying trend. Citing a rack of shows seen by only a limited audience that are now contemporary classics – Sarah Kane's Blasted, Jez Butterworth's The River – he stressed the "important role" critics played in ensuring such work "was part of the national theatre conversation”.

"I hope the Hiddleston Hamlet is just an aberration and that critics will continue to play their part in keeping the theatrical conversation alive," he concluded.

Over at the Guardian, meanwhile, film critic Peter Bradshaw – a self-professed "convert to live-streaming theatre into cinema" – pleaded with the powers that be to let HiddleHamlet be seen on the big screen, pointing out that it could act as a supplementary fundraiser for RADA.

"Why are we all pining hopelessly for this show when the solution is obvious?" he asked. "Let’s see Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet in cinemas."

Hamlet – Is it any good?

If you can cut through the chatter surrounding HiddleHamlet to the handful of critics who have emerged from RADA smugly and triumphantly, reviews in hand, you'll learn that the show isn't exactly a groundbreaking reinvention, but that it's pretty solid Shakespearean staging nonetheless.

Hiddleston himself is a compelling, capable lead, and he's supported by a classy cast and a humour-laced if somewhat traditionalist staging from Branagh. There you go – who needs a ticket after all?

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