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Theatre review: Hamlet 
16th-Oct-2010 06:32 pm
Ah good, finally I can use the vaguest of my theatre-related avatars for the right play: Having been rumoured for the last few years as Rory Kinnear became the National Theatre's golden boy, Nicholas Hytner finally directs him in Hamlet. A slimmed-down Kinnear gives a strong, likeable central performance, his Hamlet being the most studenty I've seen since Sam West's spliff-smoking version. He first meets Rosencrantz and Guildernstern in quarters that resemble a student flat, smoking a (regular) cigarette in bed - or rather a mattress with no actual bed. He's a wimpier prince than Jude Law's or Ed Bennett's - his line "as I am to Hercules" is given extra irony as he's just thumped his fist on the desk in anger and given himself an ouchie - but in common with them he makes the audience unsure how much of his madness is feigned¹: To Polonius in particular he exaggerates his behaviour to great comic effect (Kinnear brings out a lot of the character's humour, if not to the extent that Bennett did) but his reaction to Ophelia's death is completely out of control, and his revelation of how he doomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death is psychotically cold-blooded. Overall he's perhaps not a "great" Hamlet, but a very good one.

I've said it before and will say it again, more than any play, and any Shakespeare play, Hamlet is something you can watch multiple productions of and never see the same play twice, so many different approaches does it suggest. Hytner's is the most secular Hamlet I've seen - the religious references remain but seem almost out of place as the modern-dress production picks at the many incidents of spying in the play and goes for an overarching theme of surveillance and Denmark as a totalitarian state. The set (by Vicki Mortimer) is a cream-coloured, vaguely Eastern European-looking palace, with a hint of a Soviet atmosphere. Patrick Malahide's Claudius (the most sinister one I've seen for a while - unlike a few recent Claudii you really understand what Hamlet's problem with him is) looking a bit like Vladimir Putin only contributes to this. This is not a comfortable state to live in; hardly anything happens that isn't observed by some security man lurking behind a wall, and when Polonius first confronts Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet, he's got the surveillance photos to prove it. The secular nature of the interpretation was most obvious in the scene where Claudius prays: Traditionally set in an Elsinore chapel, here he prays on his desk, in his office, beneath a huge portrait of himself, it looks as if he's praying to himself (which, in a way, his final words in the scene reveal to be the case.)

The awesome Claire Higgins is the Queen, neither the innocent she sometimes is, nor a full-on accessory to King Hamlet's murder. Instead, her Gertrude is an alcoholic, always just that little bit out of it, her every sip throughout the play foreshadowing how she's going to leave it. Despite them keeping in some of his nastier moments there's still a relatively likeable Polonius in David Calder, who also plays the Gravedigger (just the one - the second one's been edited out.) None of us were too taken with Ruth Negga's Ophelia, although in her early scene with Alex Lanipekun's Laertes they manage a nicely convincing brother-sister relationship. Her death is handled in a way that's new to me though - the apparent accident or suicide is in fact murder, the ubiquitous secret servicemen dragging her off after she's gone mad. They also seem to have a nasty fate in mind for the players and Laertes' supporters, which adds to the oppressive air but might have been overdone a tad as I did start wondering why, if they have such a lot of experience making people mysteriously disappear, they need such an elaborate plan to kill Hamlet (especially since, at the time the plan's hatched, Hamlet's return is a big secret and as far as the people are concerned he could have been "lost at sea.")

Helped by the concertina-ing walls of the set, this is an incredibly claustrophobic production, making you very aware of how almost every scene takes place in the castle - the only outdoors moments are Fortinbras' army towards Poland, and Ophelia's funeral. Even the ghost (James Laurenson - the design makes a nice job of getting him subtly onto the stage without you noticing he's there at first,) who usually seems to be up on the ramparts, here talks to Hamlet in what looks like an office in a disused wing or basement, with windows that haven't been washed for some time. Having had so long to think about this production has paid off and although it's a very dark production (I found myself fearing for Giles Terera's Horation when Fortinbras' army turned up) Hytner's filled it with so many interesting details I probably missed half of them. Little things like Michael Peavoy's Barnardo being distracted in fear by a portrait of the late King, having just seen his ghost. Very impressive all round. I was telling Christopher only the other day that sometimes his reactions to plays can be so cryptic I can't tell if he liked it or not, but here by the interval he was already raving about it.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is in repertory until the 9th of January at the National Theatre's Olivier; then touring Salford, Nottingham, Woking, Milton Keynes, Plymouth and Luxembourg; and being broadcast live in cinemas on December 9th.

¹the text is trimmed rather than having huge swathes cut from it, and both Andy and I thought there were a couple of lines where Hamlet annnounces his plan to feign madness, that were cut, but we couldn't swear to it.
(Deleted comment)
12th-Dec-2010 05:03 pm (UTC)
Certainly one of them. I'd say it's my favourite in the sense that it gives so much scope to make every production different from the last.
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