Rumours began about three years ago that Nicholas Hytner was planning a production of Hamlet featuring the NT’s rising star, Rory Kinnear. At last, here he is. It has been worth the wait.
Kinnear himself says that Hamlet seems to be different every time he comes on - something he relishes - and he brings a mercurial quality, a mixture of ironic humour, anger, anguish and thoughtful intelligence which clearly chimes well with Hytner’s fresh, detailed approach.
The setting is a modern police state: there isn’t a sword to be seen before the fatal fencing competition in Act V. Denmark’s palace in Vicki Mortimer’s design is grand but a hangover from another period and furnished with incongruously functional desks and comfortable sofas. And everywhere there are armed security guards and the trappings of surveillance, the modern equivalent of Elizabethan policed society. When crafty Polonius (David Calder) warns Ophelia (a vulnerably girlish Ruth Negga) about Hamlet’s intentions, he presents her with snatched photographs of them together. Hamlet’s “Now I am alone” soliloquy is spoken in a noticeably rare moment of isolation.
Those in power - Claudius (sneakily plausible Patrick Malahide) and, in the final moments, Fortinbras - use television to record their moments of triumph. They do not brook opposition. The Players have rarely been in such danger for acting something too close to the truth - a nice point, this, given the real-life subversiveness of Shakespeare’s plays in a number of totalitarian regimes.
There is a nightmareish quality to the whole production. When this Hamlet thinks twice about suicide because “perchance to dream” is a possibility, he knows from experience about disturbed sleep. But there is a furious jokiness, too; Kinnear’s Hamlet may be neurotic, but his madness is mainly political. He chalks a childish smiley face labelled “villain” on the wall as he speaks the relevant words and the image reappears on tee-shirts which he hands out to those coming to watch the play. Gertrude, in Clare Higgins’s interpretation a none-too-bright woman who likes to please, finds she is still wearing hers as Hamlet confronts her in her private rooms.
Hytner’s production, with its multicultural cast, is generally admirably clear, snapping quickly from one scene to the next. Only Ophelia’s fate raises new questions. She has embarrassed the court with her loud songs and her shopping trolley decorated with her dead father’s newspaper photo. But who has ordered her to be hustled away? Is she murdered?
Hamlet can be mined for ever. There have been other recent memorable productions, especially the Royal Shakespeare Company’s starring David Tennant, but this highly intelligent interpretation, with its emphasis on hypocrisy, theatricality and illusory truth, is one to celebrate.