“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
It is apparently a truth universally acknowledged that any actor aiming for greatness needs to tackle Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most revered epic, and it is now the turn of Rory Kinnear, under the directorial baton of Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre to make his entry into the canon (this was the second preview). Recently we’ve had David Tennant and Jude Law, John Simm is currently performing it in Sheffield (I’ll be there on Wednesday) and Michael Sheen will be making his mark at the Young Vic next year. I don’t have a problem with this so much as just wish that there was a similar epic role for women which was restaged and revived as often to allow a comparable ticket to magnitude.
This is very much a modern-day Elsinore. Suited security guards with earpieces are ever-present, state of the art bugging technology is used, a briefcase of tools of torture is brandished and high-definition television cameras record political and battlefield broadcasts. Thus the familial quarrel at the heart of this play is firmly located in the wider political sphere of this dangerous Denmark and it is a mostly highly effective updating.
Kinnear is just excellent. He has a much-welcomed clarity of speech that gives his verse delivery an unerring quality and is superb at playing the huge mood swings: he is totally unafraid to show Hamlet at his most cruel but at times he’s also just an ordinary, all-too-human bloke mourning his father and constantly feeling let down by people who fail to meet his high expectations: it is surely impossible not to be utterly moved by his performance. The simplest of things, like exclaiming in pain as he punches a desk, the constant suggestion of his sweaty palms, become reason after reason to empathise with him, culminating in an extremely moving (and very effective) final fencing match where it felt he ultimately won over every single person in the audience and on the stage (bar one of course). More experienced Shakespeare scholars than I can talk more about any different interpretations of the key soliloquys but to me, they did feel fresh and subtly different: most impressive.
For me though, this production was equally about the female performancess. Ruth Negga is simply heartbreaking: each of her appearances is so well defined and memorable, it made for probably the most tragic Ophelia I’ve seen thus far: from her playful chirpiness with her brother to the betrayal forced on her by her father to a brutal nunnery scene, she is just superb and even in her madness, there’s a serene grace that just makes sense.
And Clare Higgins’ champers-swigging, fiercely-high-heeled Gertrude is a delight, given to moments of clear-sightedness in the midst of her self delusion, a woman who cannot (and will not) be alone. There’s a wonderful moment as she walks over a discarded portrait of Claudius whilst looking for the ghost that Hamlet can see and the tension in her relationship with her new husband is always apparent: sometimes masked with nervous laughter, sometimes explicit with her pained recounting and elaborations of Ophelia’s passing. She is just such a wonderfully expressive actress, every single gesture is imbued with such emotion, that I often found myself preferring to watch her reactions to the other characters speaking, so much pleasure her performance gave me. And to top it all off, she seems the absolute nicest of people: at the curtain call, she simply could not hide her beaming pride at Kinnear’s performance and its raucous reception, she just looked so pleased for him and they clearly have an excellent relationship.
James Laurenson and David Calder both do double duty in this production. Laurenson as the regal Ghost, possessed of a most unnerving stillness and a genial Player King and Calder as an excellent Polonius, later popping up as the gravedigger in an abbreviated appearance. Patrick Malahide’s Claudius is a restrained delight, not so evidently a tyrannical ruler as much as just a thoroughly unpleasant man, a subtle distinction but one that really works. Alex Lanipekun made for a virile Laertes but one with a clearly close bond to his sister and I really liked Ferdinand Kingsley’s sharp-suited Rosencrantz too. Only Giles Terera (the original Gary Coleman from Avenue Q!) as Horatio needs to grow into the role a bit more, there’s not quite enough confidence there at the moment to make the necessary impact, especially as the last man standing, as it were.
Vicki Mortimer’s set is intricately designed, with moveable panels of neo-classical masonry and archways allowing for extreme flexibility in suggesting the magisterial state rooms of the palace, but equally the claustrophobic rooms and offices in which much of the machinations take place. The set is cleverly squared off at the front which leaves a bare area at the lip of the stage which is perfect for so many of the soliloquies to be delivered from. This is helped immensely by Jon Clark’s lighting design which works so well with shadows and gloominess, reflecting the darkness at the heart of what we are watching and it is truly beautifully well done.
Now for the nitpicking as there were some tiny elements that didn’t work particularly well for me: Kinnear needs to drop the cigarette for the ‘To be or not to be ’speech’ or figure out how to hold it more naturally and how to ash it properly, it was far too distractingly awkward, and the transition at the ending of the final scene of the first half needs to be tightened up as it took way too long to get to the closing image, but both of these can be sorted out by opening night. The use of matching t-shirts for the audience during the Players’ Gonzago piece was an innovation too far for me though, they just looked silly.
All in all, a rip-roaring success. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel this production of Hamlet, but what it does do is treat the play with a deep intelligence which resonates throughout the entire ensemble, giving the political and personal dimensions a different new weight and one which ought to please even the most-hardened Shakespeareite.