The National Theatre, London
28 November 2010
Directed by Nicholas Hyntner
Rory Kinnear as Hamlet
David Calder as Polonius / Gravedigger
Patrick Malhide as Claudius
Clare Higgins as Gertrude
Ruth Negga as Ophelia
We saw Hamlet as Rory Kinnear’s Evening Standard drama award was announced for his roles in both Hamlet and Measure For Measure. Rory Kinnear is the even more successful son of a fine actor, the late Roy Kinnear. Keifer Sutherland is the even more successful son of a fine actor, Donald Sutherland. Let’s ferret out a link.
OK, there’s this story about scheming heads of state, smartly dressed in grey suits, accompanied by suited security guys with earpieces wherever they go. A scruffily dressed individual lays bare the murderous plot. His wife or girlfriend gets embroiled and dies herself. Then our scruffily-dressed guy discovers that right at the heart of it all is the head of state himself. Or the head of state herself. Or themselves. But the scruffy guy compromises himself by resorting to a tad too much violence in pursuit of the evil president. Or king.
Yes, this is Hamlet. Or maybe 24 (any one of Series 1 through 8). Take your pick. Because this is the “24” version of Hamlet.
You’d be really surprised if you turned up at the National Theatre to find Hamlet in black tights and a frilly white shirt. The police state theme is getting matter of course for Macbeth and Measure for Measure. Here it gets wound round Hamlet. Sometimes the fit is perfect. Claudius does key speeches as soundbites, with video cameras and lights rolled on to receive them. Polonius confronts Ophelia with security photos of her with Hamlet. Polonius and Claudius eavesdrop the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene with headphones on, and Hamlet discovers the mic concealed in Ophelia’s bible.
The look is 24 meets West Wing. Claudius and Gertrude reek of Tony and Cherie. The set looks like a White House or Whitehall interior. I liked Claudius’s presidential desk and office, with photo portrait of himself. The play is full of doublespeak and weasel words in any case. This version examines power rather than personal angst. The programme notes compare late Elizabethan England to Stalin’s Russia, which is pushing the point. There were no gulags at Guildford. But if we accept the hazard that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic, or at least his dad was, then the system of spies and informants in Elizabethan England just might be reflected in this 1601 play.
The 24 mode leads to plot additions. I’m not sure I like Ophelia being bundled off by security guards (leaving a 24-ish question about her “suicide”, dubious suicides being a 24 staple). I loved the players making themselves scarce as fast as they could after their scene (they had their lighting and grip equipment to pack up), but getting rounded up, then led off, hands on head, by Claudius’s goons.
Kinnear’s Hamlet is intelligent, articulate, playing the system.Kinnear made full sense of every single line in the play too, with superb pausing and pace. There’s no ambiguity in his Hamlet. The madness is way over the top and switched on and off at will.
Hamlet Goes Mad in Denmark: not a lot of doubt
However, the 24 interpretation left both Gertrude and Ophelia somewhat high and dry. Gertrude’s lines can be bent to fit. Ophelia’s can’t. Their roles are based on emotion, and genuine emotion had no place in this world. The early Ophelia / Laertes scene worked perfectly. Watching the players worked perfectly. The players scene was as good as I’ve ever seen it, though I puzzle why Claudius found the preliminary balletic mime version entertaining, only to ge offended at the version with lines. Having the Player King double with Old Hamlet’s ghost is standard. It works. Having Polonius double with the gravedigger is efficient in a small company, but this had so many people around that it was mildly surprising. David Calder did both so well, that you can see why he doubled.
Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
The madness scene with Ophelia as bag lady with her worldly goods in a supermarket trolley was just misconceived. She tried to rap out a song to beats on her stereo, then resorted to the traditional whimsical unaccompanied make-up-the-tune as you go along song. They should have gone for one or the other. Showing her madness by making her take her top off to reveal a pale mauve bra was simply demeaning to the actress, and an example of yet another director resorting to obtaining impact by baring a bit of female flesh.
Ophelia and Hamlet watch the players
The other scene that failed was a big, big one and failed badly. The death of Polonius. Last time I saw this, Polonius fell straight face forward through the arrass flat on the floor. In this he was stabbed through a tatty curtain with what appeared to be a fruit paring knife. Hamlet only had a little one. There is real savagery in the sudden accidental killing of Polonius. Waving a tiny knife is not convincing. It didn’t look as if it would penetrate the curtain, let alone cause a fatal wound resulting in instantaneous death; especially as the blood all appeared to be around the neck. There is something to be said for 17th century costume allowing Hamlet to have a decent sized dagger hanging next to his codpiece. Or better, a sword. No one wants to do Hamlet in 17th century gear anymore, but this IS a play where a dagger (or preferably a sword thrust), and a sword fight and a ghost are major plot hinges. Modern dress versions always have a problem integrating them. Similarly the assault rifles were not held in a particularly soldierly way, and the pistols the security guards keep pulling out and aiming are also little ones. I guessed weapons training was watching 24.
It’s sad that so many actors have to go through fencing lessons on drama courses in the vain hope of eventually playing either Laertes or Hamlet. Rory Kinnear has played both parts. A fight director told me that a sword fight will work if only one of the actors has genuine sword-fighting ability. You don’t need two. The weaker one attacks flat out. The experienced fighter copes. This one was indeed a feeble fencing event, but well angled to the audience.
The production lacked virility. The whole Freudian aspect was underplayed. Last time we saw it was with Jude Law in 2009, and there the virility was apparent.
Every production of Hamlet has to deal with the Most Famous Speech In The Entire English Language (my caps). I recall Richard Chamberlain in a TV production in 18th century gear, entering through French windows at speed, and gabbling out The Eternally Famous Line (my caps) in a breathy undertone. Jude Law in 2009 most memorably did it sitting against a huge wall in a snowstorm. Much was made of Kinnear doing the To be or not to be speech, cigarette in hand. Gratuitous, plus the weird bonfire smell of the health and safety herbal vegetarian ciggie (which Kinnear barely touched) was distracting, as were the other cigarettes in the play. Worse as the smoke drifted into the auditorium, the audience coughing which punctuates any late November performance, followed its path.
The other victim in modern dress is the beginning of the play, and this applies way beyond this version. In a modern dress version, how do you give a ghost stalking the battlements credibility? I’m tempted to point to the Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes TV series where the “ghost equivalent” was realized through interference on a TV screen. This production had one of the weaker openings I’ve seen, a dire first five minutes. If the ghost is that important, and it is, you have to design the whole set to move sufficiently to encompass and frame it. Switching down the lights and playing it on the front of the platform is severely inadequate. Also, I’ve worked with Afro-Caribbean actors. You light them more. Fact. Horatio’s face was near invisible in the crucial early speeches. The ghost was well-done, but not well-framed by the lack of dedicated set.
Then there’s the Fortibras factor. An uncut Hamlet runs to over four hours, so the programme notes that 500 lines were cut to get it to a manageable length. Four hours is not simply a barrier due to audience bottom ache (two intervals make it feasible) but because given two intervals, a production would run to four hours forty minutes. A 7.30 start would mean a 12.10 end. Too late for reasonably priced transport. Overtime for the theatre staff. The obligatory cuts here fell in different places to some other productions, so that we got the ambassadors to Norway left in, and the Fortinbras sub plot works in with the production’s focus on political machination. The Fortinbras subplot was the subject of a long entertaining lecture in theatre history at university. Our lecturer was an ex-stage manager, and Fortinbras was held to be a role for Shakespeare’s stage manager at the Globe. OK, so you write a play where at the end your four main characters are dead on a platform stage. No electricity, no curtains, broad daylight. Do they leap to their feet and take a bow, or do they lie absolutely prone until the theatre has emptied? Solution: Fortinbras turns up with his sturdy lads and bears them off. That, according to the lecture, is why Fortinbras is there. It figures. If you’re going for the angst-ridden Freudian version, you could eradicate him and finish more dramatically.
Here, Fortinbras was integrated, by giving his final speech to a video camera and spotlight, then shaking hands with Claudius’s surviving henchman. The king is dead. long live the king.
At the end, Rory Kinnear’s performance as Hamlet was remarkable. A great Hamlet. I see little enough on the London stage, but this year I’d d contest his Evening Standard award for best actor. Mark Rylance in La Bete was a full league better, and would be better than 99% of performances in any given year. Yes, he was that good. So was David Hyde-Pierce in the same production.