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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HAMLET
at the National Theatre (Olivier)

POLICE STATE
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Rory Kinnear and Clare Higgins/ Ph: Johan Persson

Elsinore in Nicholas Hytner’s full-text, enthralling new production of Hamlet – long promised with the unlikely (to me, at least) casting of Rory Kinnear in the title role – is a modern police state (“Denmark’s a prison”), where we hear the clicking of surveillance cameras during the soliloquies: “Now I am alone” is a false supposition at all times.

So far, so obvious. The best realization I ever saw of this “whispering walls” metaphor in the play was Yuri Lyubimov’s for the Taganka Theatre of Moscow, when the entire action was played around one huge moveable woolly curtain, the arras behind which Polonius expires in the closet scene.

At the National, David Calder’s careerist, lackey-like Polonius – who registers a moment of profound regret on advising his son “to thine own self be true” (he himself never was, obviously) – is stabbed in the neck through a much smaller curtain.

And that curtain is part of a great, anonymous state room in Vicki Mortimer’s superb design that (brilliantly lit by Jon Clark) can be adapted with moving walls to show other parts of the palace, or cleared for the mist-laden battlements and Yorick’s graveyard.

One of Kinnear’s best scenes is set in what appears to be his “den” or attic, where he chills with his music and dives into a trunk-load of literature like a bookish badger when asked what he reads (“words, words, words”). Here, he susses that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were “sent for” and reveals that he can tell a hawk from a handsaw; he’s not completely stupid, duh.

Kinnear, who’s a fleshy, brilliant character actor (he’s 32, normally looks older) with a nimble wit and a transparent intelligence, makes of the prince a devastated modern royal, visibly churned over by the revelations of his father’s pallid Ghost (beautifully spoken by James Laurenson, who doubles as the Player King) and propelled to the Olivier forestage to unburden his soul; he’s not the most charismatic of Hamlets, but he’s intensely watchful and analytical (his “pale cast of thought” is nothing new) – and funny.

Three things about him stand out: It really rankles that he can’t return to Wittenberg; he really does decide to become “mad”; and you really do believe that once, “pre-madness,” he did love Ophelia (though that must have been when Ruth Negga’s girlish, doll-like rebel was about 10; there’s not much sex going on in this production). He has a different face for all comers – savage with his mother, tolerant with Polonius, confused with Ophelia, relaxed with old friends, and Horatio.

Some random illustrative notes: Sent to England, Kinnear mutters “oh, good” and exits, sarcastically, on a hornpipe; Patrick Malahide’s parchment-voiced Putin lookalike of a Claudius is memorably struck with guilt on his “harlot’s cheek” aside; Ophelia’s plants and herbs are wrapped in paper in her supermarket trolley like market gifts; Osric’s “bonnet” is a peaked military cap; the ambassador to Norway, Cornelius, is now Cornelia in a grey skirt; there’s no second gravedigger; there’s a film crew on hand for court announcements and the “play” scene.

It’s regrettable that the invading prince Fortinbras is so unimpressively played by Jake Fairbrother, and that the avenging Laertes is a bit of a dunderhead according to Alex Lanipekun. Otherwise, Clare Higgins is a splendidly vampish and steadily ruined Gertrude, clutching her whisky bottle, and Giles Terera an attentive if under-characterised Horatio. But then Horatio is as blank a sheet of paper as Hamlet – until the actor sets his stamp upon him. And Kinnear’s certainly done that.

 


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