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When I go and see a Shakespeare play, it usually takes me between five and ten minutes to get my ear attuned to the language, and a little longer to get accustomed to the non-naturalistic acting. Particularly with the tragedies, there is a possibility for histrionics but David Tennant managed to resist them. In fact, sometimes his acting was so understated it was almost TV acting, with its reliance on close-ups rather than the larger-than-life movements and voices required at the theatre. His was a witty, self-aware Hamlet, driven by anger rather than grief. His reserve only broke in the scene in which he and Gertrude have their showdown in her chamber, when you could have heard a pin drop in the full Stratford house. That was a bravura performance.
The whole cast was very strong. Patrick Stewart played the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and the murdering uncle. His was also an impressive performance, but I find him too theatrical, too self-consciously thespian. Penny Downie was excellent as Gertrude, Mark Hadfield supplied welcome comic relief as the gravedigger, but for me the best supporting actor was Oliver Ford Davis as Polonius, played as a pompous forgetful windbag.
This was a cracking production by Greg Doran, directed with verve and an eye for humour, but it was David Tennant’s show—after all, Hamlet speaks 1,507 of the play’s 4,042 lines. I don’t know whether his will be considered an all-time great Hamlet, but it was energetic and enjoyable and showed that he’s far more than just a sexy TV personality (although he is that too of course). Overheard on the way out: a fourteen year old girl breathlessly telling her mother, “Wow! In the second curtain call, he was definitely looking and waving at me!”