Sunday 31 October 2010

Review: Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre

In her review of the 1982 film version of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, Pauline Kael memorably described the play as “a machine for making money, cranking its way across the stage.” That makes it pretty much ideal material for Matthew Warchus, a specialist in slick-and-soulless West End entertainments and director of the new super-swish production of the play that opened at London’s Noël Coward Theatre in August. Premiered on Broadway in 1978, Deathtrap is a twisty comic meta-thriller that keeps commenting on itself as it focuses on the cat-and-mouse games played out between a pair of writers. Sidney Bruhl is an author of murder-mysteries who resides in the East Hamptons with his wife Myra and is badly in need of another Broadway hit. When he receives a crack play called "Deathtrap" from a former student, Clifford Anderson, he plots to steal it, inviting the young man to his home with either collaboration or murder in mind. It’s difficult to say much more about what happens after this point without spoiling the surprises, but suffice it to say that Levin takes delight in wrong-footing the audience at every possible moment, while also satirising the ambitions and insecurities of writers - and the apparatus of the thriller genre itself.

The set-up of Deathtrap proves rather better than its pay-off; oddly, the more revelations that pile up the less engaging the play becomes. Despite a couple of well-staged jump-in-the-seat moments, it’s not that frightening either (the laughs cancel out the scares), and, as Kael rightly notes, the central twist is a steal from Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955). In addition, the play’s self-reflexive commentary sometimes proves irritating: it often sounds like Levin is congratulating himself for the ingenuity of his own plotting.

All that being said, you probably couldn’t hope for a more efficient production than this one, which is elegantly designed by Rob Howell, boasts superb lighting, music and sound-design by Hugh Vanstone, Gary Yershon and Simon Baker, and benefits from the expert work of a deluxe cast. It’s a rare treat to see Simon Russell Beale in a more contemporary role (his last significant one was as Phillip in The Philanthropist at the Donmar Warehouse back in 2005) and he brings a devilish mixture of bitter wit and calculation to Sidney, along with moments of odd vulnerability. His sense of timing, the way he holds back a crucial word to charge it with meaning and tension, and the prodigious ease with which he commands the stage is always inspiring, and I never cease to delight in his skill as a performer. He works brilliantly with the young American actor Jonathan Groff (alumnus of a TV show called Glee that’s quite popular apparently…), who makes a spirited West End debut here as Clifford. Completing the American contingent, there’s ripe support from Estelle Parsons (most familiar to British audiences from Bonnie and Clyde [1967] and Roseanne perhaps) as the Dutch psychic who might be more attuned to the occult than Sidney would like to believe, and from the M. Emmet Walsh-voiced Terry Beaver in the small role of Sidney’s attorney. Finally there’s Claire Skinner, who invests Myra with customary feeling, subtlety and grace. The intensity of her delivery of the line “It frightens me” provides the production with one of its genuine chills.

Instantly disposable, Deathtrap is the kind of play that leaves practically no residue on the viewer. But this production makes it pretty good fun while it lasts. It's booking until 22nd January 2011. Website here; trailer below.

Friday 29 October 2010

Review: Essential Killing (2010) @ the London Film Festival

“At a retrospective of my work in London twenty years ago I introduced The Adventures of Gerard as my worst film,” noted the wry Jerzy Skolimowski before Wednesday’s screening of Essential Killing (2010). “Today I’d like to say something different: Thank you for coming to see my best film.” Well, whether you agree with Skolimowski’s assessment or not, it’s certainly true that Essential Killing really is something to see, a brilliantly sustained piece of work that grips and engages from beginning to end. The film is Skolimowski’s spin on a Hollywood staple: the prison-break, man-on-the-run movie. The director’s daring, though, lies in his choice of man. Our central figure of empathy and identification is a Taliban fighter (Vincent Gallo), who’s captured and tortured by American troops, before escaping and fleeing across the bleak, snowy terrain of an unnamed country. (Which seems - quel surprise! - to be Poland.) But, the opening scenes of the film notwithstanding, politics isn't Skolimowski’s primary concern in Essential Killing. Rather, the focus is simply upon the protagonist’s primal drive to survive. The film tracks its hero as he dodges human and canine pursuers, nibbles on berries and tree bark, sucks a woman’s breast milk, and has to kill - and kill again.

It’s a strange, haunting journey, to be sure. Suggestive at times of an existential version of The Fugitive (1993), the movie ultimately takes on the quality of an ancient folk ballad (its indelible final image seems straight out of “Bonnie George Campbell”), with the intoxicating mixture of clarity and mystery those texts can have. Reuniting with some of his collaborators from the excellent Four Nights with Anna (2008), Skolimowski again achieves a mastery of mood and atmosphere, tone and pace. He seems in full control throughout, and the camera work - from tight close-ups through point-of-view shots to swooping pans - is exemplary. Gallo’s wordless performance (which won him the Best Actor prize at Venice) is remarkable too; he constructs the character through looks, gestures, and especially sounds, a remarkable collection of gasps, grunts and yelps. Elliptical flashbacks fill in bits of the protagonist's history, while his encounter with a sympathetic mute woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) is the movie’s (late-arriving) grace note. Essential viewing.

Review: Outside the Law (2010) @ the London Film Festival

In terms of tears shed, no film has moved me more this year than Rachid Bouchareb’s London River, his intimate drama about two characters searching for their missing children after the 7/7 bombings. Much larger-scaled, Bouchareb’s new feature Outside the Law (Hors La Loi) (2010) doesn’t match the emotional impact of London River, but it’s a significant and absorbing work nonetheless. Super-controversial in France, where its Cannes premiere was greeted by government protests, the picture charts the involvement of three Algerian brothers in the FLN, the movement that helped to secure Algerian independence from France in 1962. The film opens in 1925, with the appropriation of the family’s land by the colonisers, and covers pivotal events such as the 1945 Sétif massacre, in which the brother’s father is killed. But its main action takes place in the 1950s, by which time the brothers have located to France with their mother, and are responding in different ways to the FLN’s drive “to fight France on her own territory.”

Epic in scope and execution, a combination of historical epic, action film and family melodrama, Outside the Law sometimes suggests The Battle for Algiers (1966) crossed with Rocco and his Brothers (1960) and directed by Michael Mann. It’s also a companion piece of sorts to Bouchareb’s Indigenes (Days of Glory) (2006), about the contribution of North African troops to the Allied cause in WW2, down to its recasting of three actors from that film, Sami Bouajila, Jamel Debbouze and Roschdy Zem, who once again do superb work here. As in Indigenes, the viewer may find themselves wishing for more experimentation and idiosyncrasy in Bouchareb’s Hollywood-influenced approach to the material: there are some clunky and manipulative moments, while the endless titles announcing temporal leaps get to be a little much. But this is a chapter of French-Algerian history that needs to be told to contemporary audiences, and Bouchareb tells it with passion, clarity and conviction in this compelling film.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Review: Brighton Rock (2010) @ the London Film Festival

The BFI Members Special Screening at the London Film Festival last night was Rowan Joffé’s new adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock. It turned out to be a solid choice. Much more grandiose than the classic 1947 Boulting Brothers’ version, which starred Richard Attenborough in perhaps his best-ever screen performance as the boy-gangster Pinkie Brown, this new version might be described as Epic Catholic Noir. But don’t let that put you off. Though over-wrought at times the film is mostly terrific: gripping, involving, and a far more satisfying Greene adaptation than Neil Jordan’s ultimately unconvincing The End of the Affair (1999). Updating the story to 1964 (complete with Mods and Rockers clashes), Joffé makes terrific use of the locations and pitches the period detail just right. But the greatest pleasure of the film is in the performances. Sam Riley (of Control [2007]) makes for a sexier Pinkie than did Attenborough, and brings danger and tension to all of his scenes. Angela Riseborough is stunningly good as Rose, the girl who loves him, in a performance that’s far more varied than - but just as moving as - Carol Marsh’s turn in the earlier film. Phil Davis (underused in Mike Leigh’s Another Year [2010]) makes an impact as Spicer, while Helen Mirren brings passionate conviction (and great hints of fading glamour) to the role of Ida, who desires nothing more than to see Pinkie swing. As in the Boultings’ version, the ending here cops out, sparing Rose her discovery of “the worst horror of all.” But no matter: this is a compelling and entertaining take on the novel and it deserves to do well.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Potiche Trailer

1970s sexual politics a la Ozon: the trailer for Potiche.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Review: Meek’s Cutoff (2010) @ the London Film Festival

With the stunning Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt brings the same considered, thoughtful, slow-burn approach to historical drama that she brought to her superb contemporary-set films, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). As compelling as those two movies were, they don’t quite prepare the viewer for the awesome dramatic power and intensity of Meek’s Cutoff, a work of astounding scope and breadth and beauty. Set in 1845, it’s the story of three families who’ve broken off the “main-stem” of the Oregon Trail and are being conducted by a mountain-man, Stephen Meek, over the Cascade Mountains. With water and food supplies running low, the families have lost faith in Meek’s abilities to get them to their destination, and when the group encounter a lone Indian on the trail, they capture him to use as a guide to the terrain.

Reichardt’s images are extraordinary: mythic, sometimes Malickian, but never held so long that they seem overly-composed. The movie breathes and flows, and it makes the viewer alert to every mood, every moment of tenderness, every shift in power among the group. (The final shift comes at the movie’s brilliantly- judged conclusion, where it’s recognised by a character we never believed could make that acknowledgement, and it’s an unforgettable, quietly heroic moment.) The film also has the advantage of a beauty of a screenplay by the director’s regular collaborator Jon Raymond and performances - from Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Ron Rondeaux and Bruce Greenwood (almost unrecognisable as the wild-haired, shaggy-bearded Meek) - that simply couldn’t be bettered. Engrossing, haunting and convincing in every detail, this is a masterpiece.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Review: Happy Few (2010) @ the London Film Festival

Neither as arousing nor as insightful as it clearly considers itself to be, Antony Cordier’s tiresome ménage à quatre drama Happy Few becomes numbingly tedious as it charts the sexual involvement of two Parisian couples, Vincent (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and Teri (Elodie Bouchez) and Franck (Roschdy Zem) and Rachel (Marina Foïs) over a few months. Rachel meets Vincent at work and the couples begin to socialise. A mutually agreed arrangement of partner-swapping commences, and seems to suit all parties - before predictable insecurities and jealousies begin to surface.

There’s promise in the scenario and as often in contemporary French cinema the domestic scenes here have a wonderfully naturalistic, improvisatory quality that draws the viewer in. But every effective moment or witty detail seems to be followed by a clunking, obvious touch: intrusive ambient music, an over-reliance on montage sequences, deadening, over-explicit voice-over that frequently sounds like parody. “Week after week, we shared each other,” intones Rachel at one point. And later: “We were all going to be haunted by a simple question: can you love two people at the same time?”

More problematically, a conventional, calculating aspect to Cordier’s approach soon becomes evident. Teri confesses to a lesbian fantasy, and it’s not long before Rachel proves willing to enact it. The relationship of the male characters, in contrast, stays firmly within homosocial boundaries. The movie’s adherence to a hetero-porn aesthetic is most apparent in a spectacularly uncomfortable sequence in which it’s established that Rachel's passion for Vincent is based entirely on his tendency to slap her around during sex.

The actors do well enough. Foïs, in particular, brings bite and tension to some of her better scenes, while Duvauchelle, always a powerful screen presence, also registers strongly. But Cordier is terribly careless in his treatment of the secondary characters: the couples’ children aren’t given a line of dialogue until it serves a plot convenience. A missed opportunity, this uneven and contrived drama irritates more than it involves.

Monday 18 October 2010

Review: Amigo (2010) @ the London Film Festival

There are few filmmakers whose next movie I look forward to more than John Sayles, and no film I was happier to see on the London Film Festival programme than the director’s new work, Amigo. Sayles’s last film, Honeydripper, was a late addition to the LFF in 2007 where it received a rapturous reception that, unfortunately, didn’t translate into the box office performance the movie clearly deserved. For all of its astute analysis of racial politics in the Deep South, Honeydripper felt like a somewhat lighter work for Sayles, building to a memorable feel-good climax that the movie really earned.

Amigo, in contrast, seems a tougher proposition. Inspired by research that Sayles undertook for his Cuba-set novel Los Gusanos (1991), the new film takes as its subject the US’s next “adventure” after Cuba, anatomising tensions between Filipinos, Americans and Spanish during the Philippines-American War at the turn of the century. The Philippines were a Spanish colony from 1565, but Spanish neglect and refusal to grant political rights resulted in an increasing number of uprisings against colonial rule, culminating in the revolution of 1896-1898, which led to the proclamation of the first Republic by President Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo accepted help from the US against the Spanish, with American assurances of independence. However, after the Peace Treaty of Paris, the country was claimed and occupied by the US.

Sayles’s movie begins after the Spanish defeat and focuses on a village in Luzon in which American troops have established a garrison. The “head man” of the village Rafael (Joel Torre) and his wife find themselves working the land again, while their son flees to join his uncle who’s fighting with the guerrillas. The thoughtful American Lt. Compton (Garrett Dillahunt) tries to hold to his image of his side as democracy-spreading liberators. A Spanish priest, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), is released from captivity to provide (often dubious) translations between the two sides. Chinese workers, digging shit-holes, find themselves targeted by the guerrillas, while the young American soldiers variously drink, hurl insults, make tentative connections, and begin to wonder what they’re doing in the country.

As ever, Sayles proves adept at locating the macrocosm in the microcosm in Amigo. I can think of few films that have better conveyed the intricacies of occupation from so many perspectives: those of the occupied, those of the occupiers and those caught in between. The tensions between these individuals (and in Sayles movies the characters really are individuals, not mere representatives of particular groups or factions) emerge in sharply written and beautifully acted scenes that chart the dailiness, the minutiae of occupation as compellingly as its more overt brutality. Parallels with more contemporary American “interventions” (Vietnam, Iraq) are inevitable - especially when the uncompromising General Hardacre (Sayles veteran Chris Cooper in what might be termed the ‘Kris Kristofferson role’) announces that “We’re supposed to be winning hearts and minds here” - but they’re not hammered home. What Sayles achieves, as often, is a stimulating complexity and breadth. Notwithstanding a couple of awkward touches (notably a late skirmish that’s rather crudely inter-cut with a cock-fight), the pace and tone seem just right, and the movie is strikingly shot by Lee Briones-Meily. As good as Sayles’s dialogue always is (and the status of language during an occupation is one of the movie’s major concerns), Amigo proves equally eloquent in wordless scenes: soldiers struggling through the terrain, buffalo immersed in water, monsoon rain finally easing, a boy defiantly banging a bell.

Amigo, then, is possessed of all the Sayles virtues: intelligence, wit, sensitivity, soul, intimate focus and epic scope, with gripping personal stories leading into wider social and political areas. It’s value also lies in the fact that it's a  cinematic representation of a “forgotten war” which, according to Sayles, has had only one US film made about it, a 1939 Gunga Din knock-off entitled The Real Glory, which featured no Filipinos among the cast. “One thing a film can do is revisit official history and ask ‘Is that the whole story?’” said the director in the Q&A that followed yesterday’s screening. With Amigo, Sayles continues to interrogate the elisions and generalisations of the official version, producing yet another rich, absorbing and deeply rewarding film as a result.

Read Maggie Renzi's Amigo blog at:


Saturday 16 October 2010

Willy Russell @ Masterclass

“The question I always get asked is why I write about women so much … Thank God nobody asked that today!” quoth the great Willy Russell towards the end of a most delightful (and packed) Masterclass at Theatre Royal Haymarket yesterday. Chaired by Mark Shenton, the event took the form of an onstage interview followed by an audience Q&A. Russell began by noting that he’d originally imagined that 2010 would be a quiet year for him, but that it had ended up being extremely busy, with successful new productions of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine transferring from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End and his musical adaptation of his play Our Day Out enjoying a sell-out run at Liverpool’s Royal Court. Russell gave some illuminating insights into his career and his creative process throughout the afternoon: it was particularly fascinating to hear about the genesis of Blood Brothers (which has been in the West End for over twenty years now) and about how he started out as a writer - of songs, initially, with The Beatles and Dylan as his main inspirations. (I heartily recommend his brilliant album from 2003, Hoovering the Moon.) “At first authors seemed like aliens to me,” Russell recalled. “I thought writing was only for people in tweeds who went to Oxbridge.” Russell also talked about the “sustaining arts community” of his native Liverpool, about theatre as a space for play and imagination, about the glory days of writers being allowed to write across media, and about the importance of accurately rendering “voice” in dramatic writing, quoting Isaac Bashevis Singer’s dictum that “if you write about a specific place well, then you write about everywhere.” A hilarious reading from his epistolary novel The Wrong Boy (2000) was another highlight of the afternoon.

What emerged most strongly, though, was Russell’s commitment to creating work which connects with people at a fundamental, human level ("Plays are about people, not 'Great Issues'"), and his belief in one of the basic principals of story-telling: that the author's obligation is to make audiences want to know, quite simply, “what happens next.” The overall impression was of a writer every bit as witty, astute, compassionate and unpretentious as the excellent work he’s produced over the last forty years.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Review: Broken Glass (Tricycle Theatre)

The later plays of Arthur Miller - that is, almost anything written after A View from the Bridge in 1955 - tend to be viewed as a collection of duds and disappointments. One exception, however, is Broken Glass, which premiered in New York in 1994 and received a highly regarded staging at the National Theatre that same year, with Margot Leicester and Henry Goodman in the lead roles. Iqbal Khan’s excellent new production, which opened last week at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, casts Antony Sher and Lucy Cohu as the Gellburgs, Phillip and Sylvia, a Jewish couple in Brooklyn in 1938. News of the Kristallnacht - “the night of broken glass” in which the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship and rounded up thousands  for transportation to the concentration camps - reaches the couple and, hearing it, Sylvia is suddenly paralysed from the waist down. When the play opens, Phillip has called in Dr. Harry Hyman (Nigel Lindsay), whose diagnosis is that Sylvia is suffering from “hysterical paralysis” brought on by anxiety and fear. Hyman, attracted to Sylvia himself, begins picking at the seams of the Gellburg marriage to reveal a history of sexual dysfunction and occasional violence - a history that seems to point to Phillip, rather than Kristallnacht, as the cause of Sylvia’s condition.

Structured almost entirely as a series of duologues, the tone of Broken Glass is confiding and intimate, and Khan’s production  - with a spare set design by Mike Britton (peeling wallpaper and a very significant bed) and onstage cello playing from Laura Moody - gives the piece just the kind of controlled intensity it needs. The play is, in Miller’s words, “full of ambiguities,” and part of its power rests in its reluctance to allow the audience to come to a final judgment on its characters. Phillip - dismissed initially as “a miserable little pisser” and “a dictator” by Hyman’s “shiksa” wife Margaret (Madeline Potter) - is gradually revealed to be a man tormented by his Jewishness, capable of both cruelty and tenderness. He boasts about his own and his son's achievements, crawls round his boss (Brian Protheroe) and treats Sylvia with a mixture of compassionate concern and bullying arrogance. 

This was my first time seeing Sher live (I watched his wonderful performance as Leontes in the RSC Winter’s Tale on DVD last week) and the actor’s wire-taut intensity is indeed something to behold. I know people who find Sher “too much” on stage - excessive, "actorly" - yet his nuanced performance here is pitched to perfection. He’s well-matched by the radiant Cohu who brings pain, humour, sensuality, ordinariness and mystery to Sylvia. “It's like she's connected to some … truth that other people are blind to,” Hyman muses and that’s exactly how Cohu plays her. (Visually and vocally, the actress sometimes evokes Meryl Streep here and she certainly doesn’t suffer by the comparison.) Lindsay is superb in a tricky role (and he’s surely the only actor to have played both a Jewish doctor and a Muslim-convert suicide bomber [in Chris Morris's Four Lions] in one year!), while the always-interesting Potter, and Emily Bruni as Sylvia’s sister, also register strongly.

Even so, it’s possible to diagnose a few problems with the play itself. The primary one, I think, is Broken Glass’s referencing of Kristallnacht. The drama’s interweaving of the personal with the social and the political isn’t as successful as in Miller’s best work. Nazi atrocity functions almost as a MacGuffin here; what Miller has written is, ultimately, a marriage play, and one in which a few Freudian banalities are excavated. All this being said, Miller still has an advantage over most contemporary playwrights: he knew how to dramatise, and how to employ the kinds of details that hook and involve an audience. (There’s a marvellously evocative late passage when Phillip recalls buying furniture for the family home.) He also refuses to treat his characters with contempt. A deep compassion runs through Broken Glass, and it helps the play to transcend its more contrived moments. Khan’s is as good a staging as one could wish for: sensitive, astute, elegant, and very moving. This was my first (long overdue) visit to the Tricycle; I look forward to seeing more plays at the venue in future.

Friday 8 October 2010

Review: Children of Glory (2006)

Scripted by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Krisztina Goda, the Hungarian film Children of Glory (Szabadság, Szerelem) (2006) takes as its focus the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and, in particular, the involvement of two characters in the uprising. Karsci (Iván Fenyö) is the country's star sportsman, a water polo player who when we first encounter him is battling the Ruskies in a particularly fierce and charged match. Viki (Kata Dobó) is a student firebrand whose parents were murdered by the Soviets. Viki is initially resistant to the conceited Karsci but the couple are slowly drawn together as the Revolution develops.

There’s plenty that’s wrong with Children of Glory: crude characterisation, heavily sign-posted plot developments, manic cutting in the sports scenes that bookend the film, a swelling score that underlines every dramatic moment. And yet the film is compelling and moving for all that.  Goda doesn’t succeed in quelling Eszterhas’s pulpy, basic instincts as a screenwriter - indeed many of her directorial decisions point up his inadequacies - but the film is certainly a classier affair than Paul Verhoeven’s more widely seen Black Book (2006). Of the performers Dobó proves to be the standout, delivering an intense and charismatic performance.  Fenyö captures the arrogance of the star sportsman, while Sándor Csányi is appealing and amusing as one of his teammates. Like Wajda’s Katyn (2007), Children of Glory is really more of a monument than a movie. But that's precisely where the film's impact finally lies: in its representation of a pivotal moment of 20th Century history that’s been all too rarely dramatised on screen.

Friday 1 October 2010

Review: Hamlet (National Theatre)

The National Theatre’s new production of Hamlet had its first performance last night. While I have reservations about critiquing previews (especially first previews) I wanted to record some impressions in a review here. Hamlets certainly seem to be busting out all over the UK at present, with John Simm just opened in a production of the play at Sheffield Crucible and Michael Sheen set to give his Dane at the Young Vic late in 2011. Last year, of course, saw David Tennant tackle the role for the RSC and Jude Law give a powerful (if excessively gesticulating) interpretation for Michael Grandage at Wyndhams.

Given this glut, theatre-goers could be justified in complaining of a dose of Hamlet fatigue right now. And yet, no matter how many times it's done, every new production of the play ends up feeling like an Event. That must be due to Hamlet’s pretty much unchallenged status as the most monumental of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the one which offers the greatest role for a young actor, and the greatest rewards for an audience as well. "Confront both the play and the prince with awe and wonder," exhorts that effusive Bardolator Harold Bloom in his Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. Loopy as Bloom’s claims can sometimes be, it’s hard to disagree with his placing of Hamlet at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement, or with his assertion that “as a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, [the play] competes only with the world’s scriptures.” Then of course there’s the excitement and anticipation about what each new actor will bring to this most challenging of roles, and, for theatre veterans, the fun of comparing how Mark Rylance stacks up next to Kenneth Branagh next to Stephen Dillane next to Simon Russell Beale next to Toby Stephens next to …   &etc. 

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, the NT production casts Rory Kinnear as the Dane. Kinnear might not be a household name, as yet, but he’s clearly a Hytner favourite, an established theatre performer who’s distinguished himself at the NT in lead roles in both contemporary and classic drama, from The Revenger’s Tragedy to Samuel Adamson’s Southwark Fair; he was also a fiery Laertes to Ben Wishaw’s Hamlet in Trevor Nunn’s erratic 2004 production at the Old Vic. Like Nunn’s, Hytner’s production is a resolutely modern take on Hamlet, with power-suited politicos and their flunkies inhabiting a recognisably contemporary state. When we discover Claudius (Patrick Malahide) giving his opening speech to a TV crew as an address to the nation, my spirits slumped a bit; somehow I didn’t feel in the mood for Hamlet by way of Peter Morgan. (Save that for the Michael Sheen production, please!) But ultimately the intelligence, clarity and fluidity of Hytner’s approach - and some superb performances - won me over, and ensured that my doubts and prejudgements about the conception were quickly set aside. Indeed, what’s particularly good about this Hamlet is the equal attention that it gives to the play’s political dimension and its personal psychodrama. On Vicki Mortimer’s white panelled set, sinister suited eavesdroppers with earpieces lurk in corners, and Malahide’s supremely unctuous Claudius smarms and cajoles as he maintains his own interests; he’s a ruthless political manoeuvrer even at prayer. In this atmosphere of suspicion and surveillance, Hamlet’s dilemma achieves a real urgency and power.

It’s a dilemma that’s given detailed exploration in Kinnear’s empathetic and engrossing performance. As an actor, Kinnear can’t be said to cut a Romantic dash exactly, but his everyman quality puts the audience on his side. This is a Hamlet we come to care about, deeply. Kinnear is particularly good when Hamlet is at his most self-lacerating, and when rebuking himself for cowardice and hesitancy; Claudius’s reference to his “unmanly grief” clearly hits home. He starts out as a young man stunned and embittered by events, and the soliloquies bring us closer to him every time. Kinnear is adept at carrying the speeches through shifts in mood and tone. He takes subtle risks with the verse, turning the second “God” in the opening soliloquy into a plaintive question, for example. Kinnear's isn’t the most vigorous of Hamlets, but there’s some good physical business in the performance too. He camps up madness, folding himself into a trunk as he goads David Calder’s Polonius, then dropping his trousers in front of Ophelia (Ruth Negga) before the play-within-a-play. There’s also a heart-wrenching moment during the final duel in which he holds out his bloodied hands to Laertes (Alex Lanipekun) - a silent plea to neither receive nor inflict more pain. For Bloom, Hamlet is a “a character so various that he contains every quality” and Kinnear plays many different notes throughout. He doesn’t stint the viewer on Hamlet’s cruelty, or his irony, or his capacity for love, and his journey to “Let be” is a compelling one indeed.

As always with Hytner, the production feels fully inhabited across the board, and it’s full of potent touches and performances. Ruth Negga unravels heartbreakingly as Ophelia, the vivacity she shows in her opening scene with Laertes giving way to soul-destroying submission to her father before she discovers a strange liberation in the mad scenes. Negga distinguished herself as Aricia in Hytner’s Phedre production last year (a performance for which she won an Ian Charleson Award), and she’s even stronger here. Together, she and Kinnear give as affecting an account of the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship as I’ve ever seen.

Always substantial, Clare Higgins brings her customary authority and style to a dipsomaniacal Gertrude who oscillates between steely clarity and self-deception; she clearly loves her son but submits too readily to Claudius’s manipulations. Higgins is never wittier than when registering her impatience with Polonius’s prattling, nor more devastating than when reporting Ophelia’s death - the speech is palpably a lie here, and it marks a turning point in her relationship with Claudius. The closet scene (a standout for Jude Law and Penelope Wilton in the Grandage production) starts out over-pitched but gets better as it goes along, particularly when James Laurenson as the Ghost appears. Laurenson is the quietest Ghost I’ve ever seen, and  his first encounter with Kinnear is one of the production’s most spell-binding moments. The actor also does double duty as the Player King, as does David Calder whose Polonius is supplemented by a hearty, jovial Gravedigger, in a scene that’s been judiciously trimmed. (The production ran for 3 hours 35 minutes last night, including a 20-minute interval.) Lanipekun is solid as Laertes, but Giles Terera needs to do more with Horatio; he seems to run out of steam and is particularly underpowered in the final scene.

The contemporary approach results in a few infelicities: I could have lived without the silly “Smiling Villain” T-Shirts that the characters don for  The Murder of Gonzago sequence, for one. But, alongside the acting, what’s most exhilarating about this Hamlet is its thoughtful, even-handed approach to the play’s spiritual and political depths. Already in great shape, it goes without saying that this gripping and insightful production will only deepen as its run progresses. I look forward to revisiting it later in the year.

From February 2011, the production tours to Nottingham Theatre Royal; Salford Lowry; Plymouth Theatre Royal; Milton Keynes; Woking and Luxembourg.