The Royal Shakespeare Company's latest Stratford production of ''Hamlet'' has enjoyed more than the usual pre-opening press. For starters, it's the prestigious ensemble's 50th staging of this Shakespearean masterpiece.
But perhaps more to the point, it marks the return (in the title role) of Roger Rees to the RSC after a three-year absence.
It was Rees, of course, who just before leaving gained international acclaim as Nicholas in the RSC stage and TV extravaganza ''Nicholas Nickleby.'' After sweeping up best-acting awards on both sides of the Atlantic for a remarkable performance, he immediately moved on to star in the world premiere of Tom Stoppard's most recent hit, ''The Real Thing'' - bringing him further accolades and solidifying his place among the top rank of today's British actors.
Even so, this current production is important to Rees: It signifies his first crack at what is regarded as one of the greatest tragic roles in classical drama. Indeed, within the company he follows in the footsteps of such names as Olivier, Gielgud, and Burton - all remembered not least for their portrayals of the doomed prince. And the theater world here, not surprisingly, has been waiting to see just how Rees would fare.
So does this ''Hamlet'' live up to the anticipation?
Put simply, no.
That's not to say it's a flop. The show has strong points. And casting Rees as Hamlet has certainly succeeded in guaranteeing brisk business at the box office.
But leaving Rees aside for a moment, this ''Hamlet'' is above all else a feast for the eyes. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the RSC had a penchant for stark staging, sometimes to bad effect. Not anymore. Set designer Maria Bjornson's lavish depiction of Elsinore, the Danish castle where most of the action takes place, displays all the skill and good taste the company has to draw upon.
In this production Elsinore is a sumptuous affair of chandeliers, stairways, and balustrades dramatically placed on each side of the stage at right angles to the audience. Both costumes and set are in various shades of silver and gray. Lighting is equally muted, with occasional dreamy touches - scudding clouds and shafts of illumination from the side or behind - while the mood is made complete by Nigel Hess's haunting music. The effect is breathtaking.
Overall, however, this is not one of the RSC's best. Director Ron Daniels, so it appears, has counted on the safe formula of a stellar lead (Rees), evocative tableaux, and a straightforward rendition of the text to carry his production through the evening.
It doesn't work. And one reason is Rees himself. Although a very good actor, he is, quite simply, miscast. Or misdirected. Or a bit of both.
Rees's Hamlet is, for the first half, a petulant child. Pigeon-toed and with his hair uncombed, he darts about the stage with the quirky movements of an adolescent - sometimes precocious, sometimes awkward - throwing himself on the floor in fits of sobs when emotion overtakes him. And it overtakes him quite a lot.
He conveys no sense of ''something rotten in the State of Denmark,'' nor a dilemma of great magnitude tormenting his soul. Instead, we get a boy, in the face of problems at home, balking at having to grow up.
It is a characterization of admirable intensity and is interesting technically to watch, but this isn't Hamlet: This is Roger Rees adapting Hamlet to his immediately recognizable mannerisms. It is a performance of great energy, but little depth - a tragic flaw which is made all too clear in the second half. When Hamlet metamorphoses from crippling indecision to resolution, Rees does not assume the kind of profound inner stillness which is needed to counterbalance his frenetic portrayal in the earlier acts.
None of this is helped by Daniels's surprisingly pedestrian interpretation of the play generally. There is little sense of larger issues bubbling below the surface. The result is a monochromatic ''Hamlet'' appearing, on occasion, more like melodrama than art.
A much better example of the RSC's prodigious talents at full tilt is to be found in Trevor Griffiths's ''The Party,'' just up the road at The Other Place. A tiny, unprepossessing building, looking more like an abandoned warehouse than a theater, The Other Place nevertheless has a reputation for achieving a kind of intimacy and power that sometimes get lost on the RSC's larger Stratford stage. Indeed, ''The Party'' doesn't contain the obvious ingredients for a hit, apart from the ''coincidental'' casting of David Trelfall (who was Rees's costar ''Smike,'' the endearing crippled character, in ''Nicholas Nickleby'') as one of the leading players. But it shows what can happen when a superb group of artists step away from formula and get everything right.
Set in 1968 during the Paris student riots, the story is on one level a political discussion about the finer points of Western radicalism. It all takes place in the salubrious London flat of woolly liberal BBC-TV producer Joe Shawcross (Trelfall), who is host to a gathering of a group of ardent leftists, including a journalist, a university student, a politics professor, and a playwright. They've come together ''to do something'' to support their Parisian brothers and sisters, and they spend the rest of the evening trying to settle on ''a theory to underpin action.''
The plot, using the word in its broadest sense, is almost entirely living room chat, centered on two 15- to 20-minute monologues. The first is by the politics professor, who believes Western society ingeniously tolerates radicals up to a point, thus rendering them harmless. So, he argues, this generation of socialists must turn their attentions to the third world if a Marxist working-class revolution is ever to be realized.
The second comes from old-timer Joe Tagg, the only real McCoy among them. A working-class radical leader from way back, he tells the group in no uncertain terms that each of them, along with the ''repressed minorities,'' uses the working-class people as scapegoats for their own frustrations. He quietly but forcefully spells out their hypocrisies and stultifying pretensions and concludes: ''You've contracted the disease you're trying to cure . . . and you learn to enjoy your pain.''
If purely an exposition of political theory, the play would be about as interesting as an old boot. But on another level, ''The Party'' is an intriguingly perceptive human study of the effete state of Western radical politics today. The characters are, for the most part, tellingly drawn. Griffiths's firsthand understanding of what makes them tick, both politically and personally, is unmistakable.
Every gesture, every utterance of these people reveals the impotence they feel in a deeper sense. Radical politics dulls the pain. It provides a vehicle for an outward display of emotion and commitment none of them is unblinkered enough or truly unselfish enough to successfully achieve in their own lives.
Not an entirely new message, perhaps. But the complexity of Griffiths's script, particularly in the first half, coupled with the carefully controlled acting - beautifully underplayed throughout - succeeds in telegraphing a number of insightful nuances about people, politics, and misguided passions generally.
The play was first performed by the National Theater in 1973 with Olivier as John Tagg and is said to have made quite an impact. Apart from what are, by now, a few cliches - a minor fault of the script, not the staging - it is hard to imagine a better second showing.