“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” laments Hamlet in Act One.
Rory Kinnear gives us a performance of Hamlet in which his timing absolutely establishes the production as phenomenal. Kinnear’s Hamlet is a man of immense complexity. He is likeable, even in his hostility. He is authentic, even as he pretends to madness. His grief is desolating, his anger alarming.
Nicholas Hytner’s production is dark and thrilling. Elsinore is conceived as a surveillance state , a totalitarian monarchy, permitting an extra dimension to the eavesdropping and double-dealings central to the play. Every speech is overheard, every action reported back. Fathers spy on their sons, lovers betray each other. Claudius’ opening speech is given as a televised address to the nation. This is a production in which the conflicting constructions of the self are all given contemporary resonance.
Ruth Negga’s Ophelia is superb, one of the best I have seen. She has a unique distracted sweetness in Act One, that is amplified in Act Two to a truly distressing distillation of deranged grief. The suggestion that she has been bundled away and disposed of by the State police, makes complete and chilling sense.
David Calder plays a straight bat for Polonius, and consequently his character lacked something of the affection we might usually hold for him. Slightly disappointingly he rather underplays the verbosity, which would have given the closet scene greater poetic impact - in this production he is stabbed in the throat. Nevertheless he delivers the line ‘To thine own self be true’, with clear, prophetic gravitas, profoundly connecting this line to the darker themes of the play: who are we? Who goes there? How is it possible to be truly oneself? (especially in an environment of surveillance and intelligence) The interior interrogations of the play are here given an extra shiver, another dimension to their disturbing power.
Patrick Malahide gives a taut performance of Claudius, unfailingly ruthless, even when he kneels to pray he kneels before his own image. This is a king who worships no-one but himself. Clare Higgins is full of anger, anxiety and barely contained distress, the relationship between the Queen and Hamlet more clearly credible than in some productions.
The set is austere and self-consciously bland, a series of walls and windows, that blur the distinctions between interior and exterior spaces. There is no place here for intimacy, no secret place that is not somehow electronically bugged, or spied upon. Only Hamlet’s bedroom gives any hint of a human space: chaotic, disorderly, complex: an aberration from the established order of the State.
The comic players also deserve mention. Their play within the play was redoubled, first in mime, which brought out the tragic inevitability of the repetitions of human folly and history; and then in play, which is terrifyingly scattered as its implications become insupportable to the regime.