Nay answer me: stand and unfold yourself!
– Hamlet, opening lines
Last night we saw the National Theatre production of Hamlet, on tour at the Lowry. Just when you think you’ve seen of this play all that there is to see, along comes a production that blows the rest away and reveals Shakespeare’s masterpiece in a wholly new light.
In Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress interpretation two parallel and intertwined themes emerge most strongly. On the one hand Hamlet searches for the truth – in the state of Denmark and within himself – yet at the same time adopts the disguise, the untruthfulness, of madness: ‘I have that within that passes show’. On the other hand, Nicholas Hytner’s production presents Denmark as a police state based on lies, pretence and false displays (with key moments recorded before television cameras).
The production opens with war planes roaring overhead, and at the court in Elsinore sinister, silent security men in black are everywhere. Everyone is under constant surveillance. The set has many doorways, invariably framed by a security man with an earpiece. It is rare for two people to talk on stage alone. Nearly always someone is watching, listening, or moving off to file a report. Hamlet’s moves are constantly monitored and in the scene when Ophelia returns Hamlet’s love letters, the book she carries is secretly bugged.
Rory Kinnear is superb as Hamlet – portraying him as a scruffy student type back from his studies in Wittenberg, trying to make sense of the deceit of the court. His descent into madness or assumed madness is presented as a descent into depression: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams’. Hamlet’s depression is revealed in fits of aggression (the arras, the stabbing), alienation and manic laughter, and the intellectual probing of the soliloquies which are delivered brilliantly by Kinnear while smoking a cigarette, the pauses while inhaling and exhaling making them both totally convincing and intelligible.
There were two other performances of note: Patrick Malahide presents Claudius as a cold, calculating politician, lacking scruples or compassion, while Clare Higgins was excellent as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, playing her as a decidedly flaky alcoholic.
An excellent evening – and not a brief one, either: Hytner gives us pretty much the full text, at three and a half hours.