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. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/touring