By Matt Trueman
Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet is a marked man; most definitely ‘the observed of all observers’. The Elsinore he inhabits is a surveillance state. Where once there might have been gargoyles, CCTV cameras peer down. Courtiers have been replaced by wired-up security men, relaying information into their cuffs and receiving orders through earpieces. They are a constant presence, lurking in the shadows and peering through windows. Patrick Malahide’s Claudius certainly follows through with his own advice that madness ought not go unmonitored.
Denmark’s rot, it is implied, lies in this Orwellian paranoia; the state’s eye is trained on itself, always on the lookout for treason and ready to shoot at the first sign. When, after stowing Polonius’ body, Hamlet has scaled the building, he is surrounded by marksmen, their guns raised as if wary of the potential terror threat. By the same measure, rather than drowning accidentally, Ophelia is scooped up and bundled off by these anonymous agents. Her madness has become a hazard and, after a knowing nod from the king, requires dealing with.
Monitored thus, Hamlet is constantly performing. When, after the players have finished rehearsing, he says, ‘Now am I alone,’ Kinnear turns up a spotlight on himself as if half-aware that he is still on show. His performance is designed to throw his observers off the scent. To the outside world, he presents an unpinnable, veiled personality, consistently inconsistent. Having found a sense of determined purpose on ‘I know my cause,’ he next appears pondering whether to be or not, puffing on a cigarette as if instinctively siding with the latter. His feigned madness to Polonius, a clunking charade, has resonances of theatrical conceit: he walks in animating a book into a bird as if a member of the Complicite ensemble and crawls into his truck like enacting a bedsit version of Beckett’s bins. When he talks of his ‘too, too solid flesh’ he spins like a flailing ballerina, seeming to slip for the grasp of invisible captors. It is by the multiplicity of his performed persona that Hamlet melts and disappears.
The problem should be that we are observing Hamlet too, that his inconstancy should have us confounded. But Kinnear lets us into the act. He first appears as the only one in black (mirrored later by Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral) and sits staring ahead, half-sullen and half-empty. From there, his Hamlet seems to freeze over until he reaches absolute zero. His antic disposition is accompanied by the bluest of blue funks, having lost not just his mirth, but any impetus whatsoever. Kinnear beautifully suggests a madness born of sanity, as he drops out of the social ethos that surrounds him. Torn free of its etiquette, he becomes free to exploit it. The burly savagery with which he charges, rhino-like, at Laertes sits in marked contrast from the waifish wimp who, on punching a table in frustration, rubs his hand and lets slip a petite, charming ouch.
But Kinnear’s Hamlet is twice marked. He spends the majority of the second half quite clearly branded as a villain. Indeed, the word is scrawled across his chest below a crudely-drawn smiling face; the sort that defined 1990s raves, only shakier in its lines and oddly drowsy, as if wide-eyed and hallucinating. In itself, that is an interesting conceit. After all, Hamlet’s actions are not those of an upstanding citizen. It asks us, even forces us, to view him with ambivalence, as both sympathetic hero and devoted anti-hero. Why, we must ask, do we side with a man who bumps off his best friends and sticks the knife into Polonius, who rails at his mother, who is intent on rebellion? He is, in effect, the exact opposite of the tragic hero: a man full of flaws, erring and sinning, yet made good by one saving grace, his commitment to a noble cause. Unlike the standard tragic hero, however, the social ethos in which he finds himself is itself corrupt. That allows the cathartic cycle to work through as usual—only it is the state that we must look on with distaste, not the man in its midst.
For all its own intelligence, however, it is a device chiseled into place in Nicholas Hytner’s production. The T-shirt belongs in an essayist’s production, a non-natural exploration. Hytner is a storyteller and must find cause for such trappings in the telling. As such, he has Hamlet hand out the shirts in the play scene (perhaps Hytner is jabbing at clumsier efforts at interactivity and implication). It becomes the rebellion of a bright student: sharp with irony, yet harmless. As it happens, the label only sticks to Hamlet and Ophelia for any length of time. Claudius is rubber, Hamlet is glue….
In fact, it often feels as though Hytner is himself intent on revolution. His production feels very much the sum of its parts. While there is enough momentum for the narrative to just about coalesce, there is something disjointed, as if Hytner has treated individual moments as lily pads to hop between. The plot rumbles on such that we almost skim over the gaps. Yes, the world he has created hangs together, but Hytner tends to play a string of moments, interpreting each but letting the surveillance state serve as the unifying whole, which is not entirely satisfactory. At times, individual moments become too pat—the cigarette certainly, Gertrude trampling over her second husband’s portrait on seeing her first’s ghost. Like Kinnear’s performing Hamlet, constantly inconstant, it allows Hytner to embrace the scope of the text’s concerns. Perhaps that is cheating, by not finding a unified whole into which they fit, perhaps it is merely inevitable.
Alongside the political, Hytner elevates the familial such that, at times, this is a Hamlet that belongs over at Dominic Cooke’s Royal Court. He treats royalty as suburban pretence. Claudius’ initial address is a televised speech to the nation, staged to convey a family far better off than the dusty and sparsely-furnished palace suggests. They are keeping up appearances. In its concealed chaos amongst royalty, it calls to mind Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. Kinnear’s jogging bottoms, cigarettes, and disheveled bedroom echo her slobbish Hippolytus. Clare Higgins’ Gertrude, rarely without a champagne flute to hand, has shades of the monstrous mother Linsey Duncan created in Polly Stenham’s That Face. The choirboy sincerity behind Kinnear’s ‘Goodnight, mother’ is both sweetly tender and quietly disconcerting. But there is also an undercurrent of generational discord, as baby-boomer ideals are opposed. David Calder’s Polonius is a hilarious mixture of bluster and pomp, sidling up to Malahide’s unsympathetic, reptilian Claudius. Laertes and Ophelia, lent an indie rebelliousness by Ruth Negga, snigger at their father’s out-of-touch, windy lecturing. Rosencratz and Guildenstern make enemies of themselves by weakly falling into step.
Needless to say, this is a production of dense intelligence, but one that perhaps overreaches itself by trying to illuminate each component part. Its ability to do so comes from Kinnear’s brilliance with the text. He spins it out with such clarity that each speech seems utterly clear and fresh. The problem is that such transparency opens up the play’s multiplicities and Hytner gives us too many Hamlets all at once.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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