Review: Hamlet, National Theatre, London

T-shirt or not T-Shirt, that is the question:

Hamlet,

National Theatre, London

Reviewed by Mark Brown:

It has long been the case in British theatre that, when a director wants to innovate with a Shakespeare play – as Nicholas Hytner does with his Hamlet at the National Theatre – they fit their ideas around the text. This is in contrast with continental European “directors’ theatre”, which feels free to take liberties with the text itself (remember, if you will, Spanish director Calixto Bieito’s truncated, two-hour Hamlet, set in a modern nightclub, at the 2003 Edinburgh International Festival).

   Hytner’s Hamlet – in which Rory Kinnear’s Dane is at the heart of a very modern monarchy – is very much in the contemporary British Shakespeare mould. There is no Bieitoesque slashing of the text, but the Bard’s carefully protected script is joined to a strong, time-shifting directorial concept. Hytner’s big idea is not foreign material, like a transplanted organ which might be rejected by the body. Rather, it grows, almost organically, from within the play itself.

   In this Elsinore (a fine combination, in Vicki Mortimer’s set designs, between stark modernity and regency interiors), the powerful are media savvy and shadowed at all times by stern, heavily armed body guards. The atmosphere is understandably febrile, given Denmark’s state of war and the recent, disputed death of the king. Almost anything – the arrival of a stranger or a sudden, unexpected movement – can lead to the rapid brandishing of weapons.

   This is a smart innovation on Hytner’s part. Hamlet is, to a very considerable degree, a play about espionage and surveillance. From the royal couples’ employment of Hamlet’s erstwhile friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy upon the prince, to the hidden Polonius’s death while listening in on Hamlet’s altercation with his mother, the drama overflows with the kind of covert activity that would nowadays be the very stuff of a Wikileaks exposé. In a particularly ingenious touch, when Polonius (the superb David Calder) tells his daughter, Ophelia, that he knows of her various meetings with Hamlet, he also provides her, as evidence of his surveillance, with a set of photographs taken by a spying photographer.

   If only all of Hytner’s interventions were as well judged. Between them the director and Kinnear have contrived to create a manic, cigarette-smoking Dane who is only variously engaging. At the outset, Kinnear’s Hamlet seems almost too agitated, a stereotype of nervous tension. Likewise in his “mad” scenes, such as when he proclaims Polonius “a fishmonger”, the apparent insanity has a cartoonishness which hinders Kinnear’s attempts to articulate the paradoxes of his character.

   This said, Kinnear, in the best English tradition, speaks the Bard’s words with a beautiful diction which never suggests a pleasure in the sound of the language at the expense of the expression of its various possible meanings. Indeed, the actor has a capacity for subtlety which cries out against a particularly preposterous addition of Hytner’s production.

   No sooner has the Dane denounced Claudius as a “smiling, damned villain”, than he draws a white chalk graffito of a smiley face above the word “villain”. Hytner compounds this adolescent offence by reprising the image. Hamlet distributes t-shirts carrying the drawing (available, I kid you not, in the National Theatre bookshop) to the courtiers who witness his play-within-a-play (in a later scene, Polonius even has to point out to Gertrude that she is still, obliviously, wearing the detestable garment).

   Even if one were prepared to overlook this misfired (and, criminally, repeated) image, it is impossible to forgive the production’s sexual frigidity. Contrary to Aristotle – who thought tragedy turned on “fatal flaws” and audience “catharsis” – the heart of tragedy lies in its exploration of the seminal connection between sexual desire and death. In Hamlet, this is particularly powerful in the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius, whose regicide is sexually driven.

   Here, despite Patrick Malahide’s excellent playing of Claudius as a duplicitous politician, the erotic connection between his king and Clare Higgins’s Gertrude is all but absent. They appear like mere siblings or a sexually jaded couple whose long-suffering marriage has faded into platonic ignominy.

Hamlet is screened as part of NT Live on Thursday, December 9 at the Glasgow Film Theatre; the Cameo, Edinburgh; Dundee Contemporary Arts; and Belmont Picturehouse, Aberdeen. For further information, visit: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 5 2010

© Mark Brown

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