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Byline: Richard McComb

Hamlet RSC Stratford-upon-Avon ||||| THE question, according to his on-stage persona, is "to be, or not to be?" However, the more pertinent question for theatre-goers is: "How good is Jonathan Slinger (right)?" On the basis of the actor's all-consuming performance as Hamlet at the RSC, the answer has to be exceedingly good.

Slinger has been hailed as one of the company's brightest stars and having witnessed the anguish, energy and the breadth of emotional range that he brings to the biggest role in acting it is not difficult to see why.

Slinger is the antithesis of the chiselled, pin-up prince. His pudgy, pale face, thinned gingerish hair and squat physique means this is an actor who will not attract David Tennant-style stage door cheerleaders. But the play's the thing and Slinger is simply thrilling.

In fact, the RSC's new production, directed by associate director David Farr, courses with superb performances.

Greg Hicks, who takes the double role of the murderous Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet's father, provides a reptilian study in unrepentant evil. He stalks the stage in a double-breasted Hugo Boss-style power suit, sipping Champagne and plotting death and damnation on the hoof. Only towards the end of the play, when retributive forces encircle him, does this icy killer loosen his tie. Hicks' finger movements, as he plays the Ghost and beckons Hamlet towards him on the ramparts, speak of menace, not comfort.

Robin Soans provides a masterclass in stifling parenting as the simpering courtier Polonius while Charlotte Cornwell's Gertrude captures the conflicting emotions of a character who Shakespeare hangs out to dry from the moment she nips between incestuous sheets with her dead husband's brother.

The victim of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy is Ophelia, bullied by her father, rejected and abused by her lover and subsumed by grief. The scene where Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) appears following the murder of her father, dressed in a wedding dress and scattering flowers, is heart-breaking. Nixon brings such emotional honesty to the part that it seems almost intrusive to watch. Following her drowning and burial, her body remains in a grave, front and centre of the action, for the rest of the performance. Farr's interpretation is clear: Hamlet is a story about sex, power, moral corruption, fragile life and omnipresent death, but it is also a story about love.

The action is set in the recent past - the woolly knits, a CND emblem and Claudius's get-up suggests the 1980s - and takes places in the gymnasium of a minor public school. The Latin motto "Mens sana in corpore sano " ("A sound mind in a healthy body") is inscribed above the fencing equipment. The setting emphasises the camaraderie of the old friends Hamlet, Horatio and duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but it does not entirely convince.

Unlike Slinger, whose bile and antagonism towards his mother is blistering from their first exchange. Hamlet's grief over his father's death, which Claudius ridicules as "unmanly," is anything but. The role is often picked apart as a series of contradictory character studies - Hamlet the nihilist; Hamlet the psycho; Hamlet the jester and friend; and, finally, Hamlet the avenger. It is to Slinger's huge credit that he brings together these apparently conflicting strands of character to provide a wholly convincing, consistent and thoroughly modern Hamlet.

Richard McComb
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 28, 2013
Words:549
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