Shakespeare's HAMLET is a regular visitor to London. Jude Law's Dane followed hard on the heels of David Tennant's. Unfortunately for many of us, Tennant had back trouble and cancelled most of his performances, leaving sold out audiences with the dull, mediocre Edward Bennett who droned every soliloquy in the same way. Rory Kinnear is not as starry a name as Law or Tennent, but National Theatre audiences have been eagerly awaiting this production, staged by the NT's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, since it was announced two years ago.
Hytner's production concept is much like Stephen Pimlott's for the Royal Shakespeare Company (Samuel West was the fine Hamlet) five or so years ago. Denmark is a contemporary society in which political leaders play to the cameras and everything is watched. Pimlott gave us video surveillance. Hytner is more interested in the contrast between public rhetoric and private corruption. Once again we have an alcoholic Gertrude. While few of Hytner's ideas are original, one has a sense that every moment, every motivation and confrontation have been carefully thought out.
The same can be said of Kinnear's HAMLET. His performance, the best I have seen of this mammoth and difficult role, combines appreciation of the poetry and understanding of Hamlet's mercuric mood swings. It is a truism that no one performance can capture all of Hamlet. Kinnear comes closer than any actor I have seen to realizing this complex character. I thought he would play up the humor more, but it is clear that Hamlet's "antic disposition" is not an act he enjoys. What we feel most deeply is Hamlet's disgust with the court, his cynical friends, his mother and uncle-stepfather and, most of all, himself. This Hamlet has few moments of happiness. Kinnear takes the soliloquies slowly as if Hamlet is carefully thinking out loud. There isn't one stagy moment when one felt he was "Acting." Kinnear has been doing fine work in a series of roles at the National and elsewhere as well as a lot of television. This Hamlet establishes him as the best actor of his generation.
The supporting cast is good. There is nothing revelatory in their performances, but nothing bad either. Ruth Negga manages not to be vapid as Ophelia. In this production, she is murdered by Claudius's henchmen -- Gertrude's description of her suicide is a lie. Negga's Ophelia wouldn't kill herself in such a passive manner. Alex Lanipekun is a macho Laertes. Patrick Malahide does his usual creepy villain routine as Claudius -- we've seen it on many English tv murder mysteries. Claire Higgins seems to have forgotten that Gertrude is a queen. One feels that she's dying to play Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Hytner seems to want us to believe that Gertrude is both complicit in Claudius's villainy and disgusted by it, a Danish Carmela Soprano. Higgins plays the sloppy drunk a bit too much.
The production is effectively staged and well paced, but the reason to see it is Kinnear.
HAMLET by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Designed by Vicki Mortimer. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. October 26, 2010.