|Rory Kinnear as Hamlet|
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, which was transmitted in HD in 2010 and recently had an encore screening, is set in a distinctly modern police state where the omnipresence of security is such a familiar sight in the court of Denmark that the characters have stopped noticing them. Polonius (David Calder) and Ophelia (Ruth Negga) talk freely in front of one guard, though the topic of their conversation is her romantic relationship with Hamlet (Rory Kinnear), and when Polonius confronts her about it, he produces a file containing photos of them together. Spying is a natural impulse to Polonius, who sends Reynaldo (Victor Power) off to France to check on his son Laertes (Alex Lanipekun) and later gives his daughter a walkie-talkie concealed in a Bible so that he and King Claudius (Patrick Malahide) can hear how Hamlet reacts when she returns his love gifts. The way Calder plays the old counselor, he has a passion for spying. He’s proud of himself for his ability to tender this service to his king – though when he tells his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” he pauses, unsettled, and you wonder if, just for a moment, he contemplates the possibility that he’s violated his own principles (at least since Claudius took over the throne). After Hamlet kills him by accident in his mother’s bedroom and Claudius can’t get him to stop clowning long enough to tell him where he stowed the body, one of the king’s men opens an attaché case full of torture instruments, and Hamlet, who has been handcuffed, acquiesces. Instead of being a fop (as he’s usually played), Osric (Nick Sampson) is the same military man who had a hand in Hamlet’s deportation to England – where he was supposed to be executed on the English king’s orders – and when he invites Hamlet to take part in the duel with Laertes, it’s obvious to us that he’s in on the conspiracy.
|Ruth Negga as Ophelia and Rory Kinnear|
One of the keynotes of this production is the youthfulness of so many of the characters – not just Hamlet and Horatio (Giles Terera), Rosencrantz (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Guildenstern (Prasanna Puwanarajah) but also fragile Ophelia, who is listening to rock ‘n’ roll as she reads when we first meet her, and Laertes. This Laertes is a macho skinhead who’s rather blunt and unimaginative and whose reappearance in Denmark after his father’s murder, in torn-kneed jeans, waving around a rifle, is the kind of thuggishness a twenty-something who doesn’t know how to handle his anguish might affect. (He’s so naïve and unsure of who he is that he’s the ideal pawn for Claudius’s plot against his nephew.) When he and Hamlet brawl at Ophelia’s grave, it’s a macho competition to see who can make the most flamboyant show of mourning. Lanipekun does a beautiful job with Laertes’s confusion over Hamlet’s apology before the duel, which makes him question for the first time the justice of the murder he’s signed up to carry out. The age of these characters also explains why Hamlet is so furious at Ophelia for allowing her father and the king to spy on their conversation – which, untutored as she is in the corrupt ways of the court, she’s inept at disguising – that he explodes at her (“Get thee to a nunnery”) and continues to upset her the next time they meet, before the play within the play.
|Clare Higgins as Gertrude with Rory Kinnear|
Hytner is practically a genius at not just finding ways to contextualize Shakespeare’s tragedies for modern audiences but at making those concepts concrete. As in Othello, he works with designer Vicki Mortimer to create spaces within the palace setting that house the characters convincingly and provide a sense of how they’re connected to each other. (I’d also commend Jon Clark for his German Expressionist-style lighting.) When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern approach Hamlet for the first time, he’s in his bedroom, and we see both the interior and exterior. It’s such an undergraduate environment: books spill off the shelves, and when they enter he’s sitting cross-legged on a futon – the only bed in sight – smoking. The production is full of witty touches, like the silent-movie dumbshow that begins the Mousetrap, and the startled look on the face of Marcellus (Marcus Cunningham) when he sees the late King Hamlet’s photograph in the court, as if the Ghost he’d seen the night before on the battlements had come back in daylight. When Hamlet requests The Murder of Gonzago the Player looks worried; he knows the text and he knows Denmark is effectively a police state. When, following Shakespeare’s specific directions, the king rises during the Mousetrap scene, Claudius moves toward the dead Player King as if he were sleepwalking, drawn as if by a magnet to a replica of the scene of his own crime. In this Hamlet, Gertrude actually sees the Ghost when he appears in her bedroom, though she tells Hamlet she doesn’t; that’s a radical choice but it works. On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to imply that Ophelia is killed by Claudius’s security guards; it makes nonsense out of Gertrude’s speech about her drowning and out of the king’s worry that the death of his sister will make Laertes, whose fury he has just calmed, volatile all over again. I liked Ophelia’s entrance for her mad scene with a supermarket cart full of bags and blankets, with a front-page photo of her father taped to the front, but though Negga goes for broke in this section, her ranting grows a tad tiresome. It’s the structural problem in Hamlet: in the fourth act, when Hamlet is off stage double-crossing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and being kidnaped by pirates, the play seems to dawdle – especially when the Hamlet is as mesmerizing as he is here.
When Kinnear’s Hamlet returns in act five, he’s the same angry, impetuous young man who boarded the ship for England, except now he’s truly armed for action. I don’t think that’s the way Shakespeare wrote the character, who has always seemed to me to have attained a modicum of acceptance, if not precisely serenity, that expresses itself in “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” But Kinnear is persuasive enough to make you go with this interpretation even if you don’t buy it. This thirty-five-year-old actor is astonishingly accomplished. You can hardly wait to see what he else he can do.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.