By William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring Rory Kinnear, Clare Higgins, Patrick Malahide and James Laurenson
National Theatre, London
Runs until 26 January 2011, and then on tour around England (Salford, Nottingham, Woking, Milton Keynes and Plymouth) during February and in Luxembourg, 14-15 March
In setting his production of Hamlet in the declining years of a late 20th-century Eastern European dictatorship, Nicholas Hytner does little more than revisit the Hamlet of Yuri Lyubimov for the Leicester Haymarket, or Alexandru Tocilescu's staging for the Bulandra Theatre Company in Bucharest that went on to tour the world. While those productions were animated by their directors' immediate experiences of the ailing and corrupt regimes of the Soviet bloc, one wonders about the wisdom and, indeed, the entitlement of a contemporary English director to appropriate and condemn the history of another time and place.
But in spite of its rather uninteresting setting, this production, thanks to some extraordinary acting, repeatedly ignites. Excellent performances by Patrick Malahide (Claudius), Clare Higgins (Gertrude) and James Laurenson (Ghost) ensure that both the plot's political intrigue and its family betrayals are enthralling.
Amid the uncertainty of the Danish "prison" is Rory Kinnear's Prince. Kinnear renders the Prince's thought processes transparent, exposing Hamlet's mentality so that while those around him are baffled by his pretence at madness, his riddling nonsense or his apparently unmotivated furious outbursts, his course of action, even when most meandering, seems perfectly comprehensible to us. Couple this incisive readiness with a clarity of verse speaking, and Kinnear's performance gives us one of the most lucid British Hamlets of recent times - without Jude Law's overly dramatic self-seriousness or David Tennant's distracting mischief.
The core of this production is the saga of Hamlet's immediate family, and it is here that it scores its most palpable hits. For instance, the closet scene offers the tantalising possibility that Gertrude actually sees the fleeing Ghost. The scene is usually played with an absent Ghost and a hallucinating Hamlet or a present Ghost and a Gertrude unable to see it. Yet here, as Laurenson's Ghost turns to leave, her expression is one of horror and surprise and she walks quickly over to the "portal", her stiletto heels clattering across the portrait of Claudius in full military regalia that Hamlet had earlier thrown to the floor in the heat of their exchange.
Later, as the Queen reports the death by drowning of Ophelia (earlier seen hustled off by two security men, presumably to be put to silence), Gertrude has clearly been given the account to learn and recite in order to defuse Laertes' vengeful anger. As she delivers the surprisingly poetic "There is a willow grows aslant a brook...", she stares daggers at Claudius, who looks on cringing with embarrassment in the full knowledge that his public relations machine has come up with such a far-fetched explanation.
"Alas, then she is drowned," utters Laertes, taking the bait, to which Gertrude responds with a sardonic "Drowned, drowned" as if to say, "Yeah, right!", all the time holding Claudius with her vitriolic expression and, following Laertes' exit, ironically raising her whisky glass to toast the insidious monarch.
Malahide's Claudius, by contrast, is a model of sober efficiency. His opening "Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death/The memory be green..." is delivered calmly to camera for live broadcast as he sits with his Queen in front of a billboard of Old Hamlet, festooned with black drapery. Although not at ease in front of the cameras, this is a Claudius who recognises the importance of PR and shows himself entirely able to construct and exploit a fictional persona. This contrasts with his personal and sincere dislike of his nephew. Hamlet stands in front of Claudius' mandarin desk and produces his papers - passport and ticket - as though to seek royal assent for his return to Wittenberg. The King briskly ignores him and asks, leaning past him, "Laertes, what's the news with you?"
Cured, albeit temporarily, of his debilitating paralysis, Hamlet's glamorous swordsmanship turns the final sequence into a heroic and purposeful climax. As the swords are exchanged, Hamlet registers that he is now holding the fatal weapon and the harmless one lies at his feet. Unarmed, Laertes stands opposite him and, in a moment of pure Errol Flynn, Kinnear puts his toe under the blade on the ground and with a deft flick kicks the sword up into his opponent's hand. The action serves to underline the impulsive potential of this most procrastinating of heroes - a glimpse of the way Hamlet could have been if only...