When it opened in October, the National’s Hamlet received strong reviews, with critics noting the taut energy and vision of Nicholas Hytner’s direction as well as Rory Kinnear’s well-crafted performance. I had been eager to see the production, managing to acquire a ticket for the second-to-last performance of the London run (Hamlet goes on tour in February). But I was concerned, since I wondered if this production, which I knew to be critically acclaimed, would still be so on the night in question.
The evening did not begin auspiciously. I sat in the upper tier, slightly left of center. Designer Vicki Mortimer’s set is three sided, one wall at the rear stage and two walls perpendicular—like a box with one side and the top removed. Which must be fantastic for the audience in the center stalls, but it causes sight-line problems for those of us on either side. The play begins suddenly, but Bernardo (Michael Peavoy) is barely audible, his voice swallowed up by the vast Olivier. At which point the mid-twenty-something, skinny-jean and thick-rimmed-glasses-wearing guy next to me decides it would be a brilliant idea to begin eating soup. In the middle of the performance. With a fork. Disgusting.
As the action moves to the interior of the castle, the walls fold in on themselves, lessening the severe angles. Claudius (Patrick Malahide) delivers his opening speech as a television broadcast, taking Gertrude’s (Clare Higgins) hand in a simpering gesture, demonstrating that all is well in the state of Denmark. Or at least publicly. Hytner populates Elsinore with secret service agents, secretaries, and aides. No one is ever alone in this information state. Denmark does feel like a prison, and Hamlet becomes “the observed of all observers.” Polonius confronts Ophelia (Ruth Negga) with spy photos of her and Hamlet in compromising positions. There is a bug in the Bible Ophelia carries during her interview with Hamlet.
What of Hamlet’s opening line (“A little more than kin, and less than kind”)? Kinnear speaks with extreme clarity—he has had a long time to ruminate on this part—but at the expense of speed. With other Shakespeare, this would not be an issue. But this is Hamlet. A brief program note reads: “A conflation of the Second Quarto and Folio texts would run to more than 4000 lines, or well over 4 hours –by far Shakespeare’s longest play. About 500 lines have been cut from the text for this production.” We have at least 3500 lines to get through, and if Kinnear is going to meticulously chew over every line before swallowing, we will not finish dinner until it is past our bedtime.
Pace aside, Kinnear is gripping. Slightly pudgy and balding but still with a gleam of youth, he somehow seems more suitable than waifish—or much older—Hamlets. He reeks of perpetual student-dom, desperate to return to university so he can sit in cafés, smoke, and, one senses, continue his PhD program that he has been in for the last seven years. This Hamlet’s wit and wordplay, we learn, comes from his mother, as Gertrude morbidly laughs at Hamlet’s reference to the slain Polonius as “most grave.” He draws a smiley face and writes the word “villain” under it—referring to Claudius—and then has this design printed on T-shirts and distributed to the play-audience of the play-within-the-play.
I have seen “To be or not to be” done in many clever and inventive ways, but rarely do I see it performed “straight-up” without any gimmicks. Kinnear only has a cigarette to wave about amid the murmur of people finishing the phrase—“that is the question.” As he approaches “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished” I hear the crisp gunshot of a page turning in the audience—someone is following along. The most iconic speech of the most iconic British playwright delivered straightforwardly (if slowly) with clarity: a ballsy choice.
The concept of Denmark as a police state is executed brilliantly, even shockingly. Ophelia’s suicide, it is suggested, was orchestrated—possibly with the help of Gertrude—as punishment for Laertes’s (Alex Lanipekun) attempted revolution. Collusion with violence even touches Hamlet as he shrugs off the death of Rosencrantz (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Guildenstern (Prasanna Puwanarajah). And strong turns from Kinnear and Higgins create a solid center. But in the final duel scene, a drunken Gertrude points to Hamlet and shouts, “He’s fat and scant of breath!” and this is the perfect way to describe the end of the National’s Hamlet run. Clocking in at three hours and forty-six minutes, suffering from too many pregnant pauses not only from Kinnear but from the entire cast, the performance feels like the flabby, gone-to-seed version of a production that was once fresh and fit.