A lady sitting next to me at yesterday’s matinee commented how nice a change it made to have someone relatively unknown playing Hamlet. Certainly, Rory Kinnear hasn’t made the same mass-media impact yet as David Tennant or Jude Law, but he’s been working his way up, giving stunning performances in The Revenger’s Tragedy and Measure for Measure to name just a couple, and the National’s publicity art clearly demonstrates the level of confidence the theatre has in him:
Nicholas Hytner’s large-scale production, clocking in at over three and a half hours, was, however, a disappointingly conservative affair for the most part. As a showcase for fine performances, decent verse-speaking and a suitably reverential tone, it was exactly what one might expect; however, it lacked the spark or originality that might have helped it stand apart from other recent and equally worthy productions. Part of this was down to Kinnear himself, conducting his early scenes with a melancholic solemnity and pausing significantly after the first line of each of his big soliloquies: one could feel the National audience using the pause to settle expectantly into their seats, though only once – to my glaring annoyance – did an audience member actually start reciting the lines out loud along with the cast. It’s that level of expectation and predictability which, to me, screams out for something far more radical to be done with the play.
However, Kinnear gave a superlative performance that subverted several of these expectations to great effect. This was a particularly callous Hamlet, particularly in his shrugging dismissal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths, at which Horatio was especially horrified. By the fifth act, Hamlet was beyond redemption, a cynical and committed revenger with more than a passing resemblance to Kinnear’s earlier interpretation of Vindice. His madness – heavily feigned – manifested itself comically in dances, high-pitched singalongs and a cutting sarcasm that heaped scorn on Claudius. Early on, in a frenzy, he had chalked a smiley face and the word “Villain” onto a wall as he realised Claudius’s treachery; and, in a neat twist, he transferred the design onto a batch of t-shirts that he gave out at “The Mousetrap” to everyone except the King. This careful stage managing of his play, at which he controlled follow spots to illuminate Lucianus, culminated in a chaotic dispersal of actors, audience and scenery, at which an exulting Hamlet fell to his knees downstage, closing the first half in a roar of triumph.
The long (2 hours) first half, however, suffered from a slowness of pace. Kinnear evoked the psychology of the conflicted anti-hero with some skill, and indulged in a great deal of sympathy with the character, particularly in the gestures of despairing guilt following the accidental murder of Polonius, a significant turning point for him. However, his solemn delivery and internalised responses kept the tone of the play steady and slow, exacerbated by a rather static staging and blocking, particularly in the scene between Hamlet and the Ghost which was, frankly, dull. An over-reliance on microphones (flagged up at one point as backstage radio messages suddenly came across as the Ghost tried to speak in a sound blunder) left the production too often distanced and self-contained, a psychological reading that was fascinating, but unengaging.
Far more interesting were the political machinations. Patrick Malahide’s Claudius was a suited politician inhabiting a grand old palace (whose walls moved to create smaller compartments suited to the various scenes) where every entrance was guarded by a flunky and camera crews were on hand to record selected speeches for public consumption. Claudius’s opening announcement of his marriage was conducted as he and Gertrude sat beside each other in fine chairs, holding hands; and the crew were summarily dismissed before he turned his attention to foreign affairs. His rule built itself around terrorisation and fear: even as Hamlet exulted at the close of the first half, the players were marched off at gunpoint to their apparent death, and a similar fate awaited Laertes’s hooded supporters. Even more alarmingly, the insane Ophelia was grabbed from behind a door and pulled offstage, the report of her drowning following shortly thereafter.
Ruth Negga’s Ophelia was servicable, if unremarkable. She stripped down to her bra and pushed a shopping trolley during her mad scenes, but any spontaneous effect was partally neutered by her careful songs, one of which was sung along to a heavy rock instrumental track on her portable CD player. The tightly-planned randomness didn’t excite, but her rutting against first Claudius and then Gertrude had a far edgier and more sickening aspect to it. Far more impressive was Clare Higgins as a powerful and independently minded Gertrude, who reacted angrily to Hamlet’s insinuations against her infidelity and took an active role in commanding courtiers and organising arrangements. Good humoured (she laughed at Hamlet’s jokes throughout “The Mousetrap”, until they were directed explicitly against her) and emotionally engaged, her collapse during the closet scene was particularly compelling. She began confidently and angrily, but collapsed following Polonius’s murder and retreated to an uncontrolled sobbing on a sofa as she took comfort in a bottle of scotch. Upon being left alone, she wept bitterly until Claudius’s entrance.
Special credit should go to James Pearse, who understudied for David Calder as Polonius and the Gravedigger, both conventional but entertaining performances. In particular, Polonius’s contrast to the players – a dynamic young bunch with keyboards, lighting equipment and crates of costumes – was pleasingly entertaining, including a moment as James Laurenson’s Player King stood aside in annoyance after one too many interruptions and gestured to Polonius to take his place, to the old man’s embarrassment. The network of flunkies around the palace helped to evoke the multiple-tiered hierarchy of the ruling classes, surrounded by yes-men and intermediaries whose presence mitigated the privacy of many of the scenes. From the scene to camera in Claudius’s first appearance, this was a world in which private lives were lived under public scrutiny, hence the quick and brutal efficiency of the wet work.
Ferdinand Kingsley and Prasanna Puwanarajah made for an entertaining Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, first visiting Hamlet in his bedroom and later leading the search parties with some intensity. The self-serving aspect of the characters was played up, their efficient responses to Claudius’s commands betraying their essential role as spies. Giles Terera’s Horatio, by contrast, was a nervous and independent young man, out of place in the world of the court and terrified by what he saw around him. His cradling of Hamlet’s body in the final moments of the play was moving, his face betraying a complete lack of comprehension of the events he had witnessed.
While not an exceptional Hamlet, then, this was at least a solid and well-performed interpretation, and one that will no doubt further cement Kinnear’s reputation. A vigorous closing battle ended the play on a high, with courtiers running in fear from the out of control duellers and Hamlet coldly brushing the poisoned swordtip across Claudius’s chest. I think, though, that Hamlet is now severely overdue for considered reappraisal and a far more inventive approach.