John Simms Hamlet at Sheffield Crucible has attracted a lot of silly and sometimes snide comment ( along with the admiration) even from those who should know better, so I shall start by saying that he is not a celebrity, he is a fine actor, and whether he is “better” or “worse” than David Tennant is totally irrelevant. Every actor who is faced with the challenge of playing Hamlet digs deep into themselves to find the character, someone who is all things to all men, and their take on the part comes from what they find there. It is John Simm’s first Shakespeare role and I saw only his second performance. He can be proud of himself without any doubt. His Hamlet is very much a bookish student rather than a sweet prince. He speaks the verse simply and directly, with a clear understanding of the text and is able to make it live. He is relatively old to play Hamlet, but he portrayed a man who is young, dynamic and vulnerable, a slight figure on stage who thinks quickly and intelligently, someone who is not easy to fool. I liked his relationship with Ophelia, particularly during the play within a play, and the obvious love that he had for her made the scene at her graveside very moving.
The rest of the cast provide solid support. John Nettles is an excellent Claudius. He begins with the kind of constant overbearing bonhomie that invariably hides something and during the course of the play, as this is stripped away, we see him realise that one way or another his sins are going to find him out. Hugh Ross is very good indeed, a warm, funny and irritating Polonius and a wise, sharp witted gravedigger. I also liked Colin Tierney very much as Horatio. He has great presence on stage and was a credible friend for Hamlet, more than you could say for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who I felt were a terrible misjudgement. Barbara Flynn’s Gertrude was nicely done, although I prefer a sharper, cleverer reading of the part. Michelle Dockery looked lovely, moved well and spoke the verse beautifully but I couldn’t help feeling, later in the play, that Ophelia’s madness doesn’t really sit well with that kind of composure and elegance. I have never yet seen an Ophelia who completely works for me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will. Laertes is a nice part for a young actor, an uncomplicated, dynamic, loyal brother, and Tim Delap played it with just the right directness and attack. I was delighted by young Alexander Vlahos as Osric. It was a quirky little cameo, done with great style, which never descended into a comic turn.
The set was a simple, grey curling balcony with central doors and bookcases underneath and the empty space of the Crucible stage jutting out in front. The atmosphere seemed to be drawn from somewhere in Eastern Europe with wintry birch trees visible during the outdoor scenes and a cold dim light. The staging was sparse with little furniture and few props. This left the actors relying on the verse, which is good, especially in a wonderful, intimate space like the Crucible, but it did make for one or two awkward moments where they had to work a bit too hard to find variety and different levels. All the cast played the space beautifully, including all the audience on all three sides and drawing us in.. Malcolm Ranson, who must have directed more stage fights than I have had hot dinners by now, treated us to a terrific fight with foils at the end of the play. All in all it was a great evening. Hamlet is such a complex play that there are always gains and losses however you approach it. It will never be perfect and we shouldn’t expect it to be. That’s what makes it worth coming back over and over again.