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First Night: Hamlet

First Published 8 October 2010, Last Updated 6 June 2018

Director Nicholas Hytner brings us a thoroughly contemporary Hamlet, with Rory Kinnear’s Danish Prince using his antic disposition as a defence against the spin and security of a modern palace.

Right from the beginning the tone of this Hamlet is set. The new king Claudius (Patrick Malahide) gives his speech about the passing of his brother to camera, his new queen by his side, as though broadcasting live to the nation. Gertrude’s cynical roll of her eyes after the speech is over effectively shows the two-faced nature of this palace: they smile sweetly for the cameras, but underneath their motives are less pure.

In this modern Elsinore it is not just the cameras that are watching. This is a place where besuited security services lurk round every corner, mumbling into their headsets, hands on their guns; a place where bugs and Dictaphones are used as listening devices. The mighty resources of a modern palace are against Hamlet from the moment he takes on the command of his father’s ghost to avenge his murder. The smokescreen of madness is therefore the only way he can wreak havoc.

Kinnear’s youthful appearance makes this Hamlet a true student: dishevelled, a bit grubby, often clutching a cigarette. A scene in his bedroom shows Hamlet to live in a perpetual state of disarray, a dirty wine glass on the floor, books in a disorderly heap, sheets entangled on his bed.

This youthfulness and disorganisation means the antic disposition that Hamlet adopts is apt. He is like a teenager being awkward for the sake of it, a student in a strop. There is no doubt, with Kinnear’s portrayal, that Hamlet is putting on an act. His behaviour to Polonius is hilariously over the top, yet the old man tolerates it, not because he is a buffoon – David Calder’s Polonius is an exasperating blatherer, but no fool – but because Hamlet is the queen’s son.

This is also a truly sympathetic Hamlet. His soliloquies are poignantly acted: this is a kid who has lost his father and has been thrown into a situation where he must make decisions he cannot deal with.

Hytner’s exciting, pacy staging refreshes the old story. The players are modern actors, who come with cameras and lighting, and the synopsis of the play they perform in front of the king is a physical theatre vignette set to pounding dance music. Hamlet, in the throes of his ‘madness’, makes the play’s audience members wear a T-shirt with a smiling face and the word ‘villain’ on it. I only wondered how he found the time to pop down Prontaprint to order them.

This contemporary feel is reflected in the other characters. Clare Higgins’s Gertrude is a hard, self-serving woman who likes a drink – a subtle addition which leads effectively to her final demise – while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sharp-suited city types who see their chance to earn a buck. Alex Lanipekun’s Laertes and Ruth Negga’s Ophelia are suitably embarrassed by their father’s wordy advice, and the scene between brother and sister when they speak of Ophelia’s ‘chasteness’ is as awkward as it should be between modern siblings. Ophelia’s madness – often a difficult scene to play well – is also effectively dealt with.

Vicki Mortimer’s stylish, multi-room set roots the play in its modern setting – we could be in the West Wing or Buck House – while Jon Clark’s beautiful lighting makes full use of the props that come with Hytner’s staging. In one scene a spotlight used by the players creates an exquisite setting for Hamlet’s soliloquy. The only odd note in this contemporary set-up is the appearance of an old fashioned computer and portable stereo; could the National’s budget not stretch to a flatscreen and an iPod docking station?

Nevertheless, the contemporary staging is a success, and as the play comes to its inevitable conclusion it seems a warning against the trappings of the modern world: out of spin, deceit and spying no good can come.



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