Wednesday, 2 March 2011

National Theatre: Hamlet - Milton Keynes Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Reviewer: Maggie Constable

Following 80 sell out performances at the National Theatre this is the last opportunity to see Hamlet. Do not miss it! How lucky are we to have the National Theatre’s acclaimed tour at Milton Keynes theatre. After his much-praised performances at the National in Burnt by the Sun and The Revenger's Tragedy ,to name but two, the Olivier Award-winner Rory Kinnear plays Hamlet.

A fighter plane rumbles overhead. Lights glare over the desolate black-and-grey castle that is Elsinore. Armed soldiers sporting camouflage pose strikingly…Two young men — Hamlet and Laertes — lose their fathers and seek revenge, leading to bloody carnage and misery aplenty. The plot is well-known but celebrated director, Nicholas Hytner, creates a modern take on his first retelling of this tale. He plumps for a contemporary militarised setting with the new king, Hamlet's Uncle Claudius(Patrick Malahide, the Putin look-alike), ruling a surveillance state, and David Calder’s excellent Polonius who is not the doddery fool we sometimes see, but the “spymaster general”, actually a head of the secret service.

Something is truly rotten in the state of Denmark! The set(cleverly designed by Vicki Mortimer) is a large room framed by huge doorways, themselves usually framed by a security man with an earpiece. It is unusual here for people to have a conversation alone. Nearly always there is someone is watching, listening, moving off to report or following. Big brother indeed. In this state where everything is watched and noted, Patrick Malahide’s cold, calculating and unrepentant Claudius is totally believable as a man who would kill his own brother, take over the crown, and run a state with a mix of paranoia, harsh control and mistrust that would make Machiavelli look lenient. His men are all around.

Osric, is not in this production a fop, but a somewhat steely enforcer, who knows only too well the probable result of the fight he is ordered to arrange between Hamlet and Laertes. Ruth Negga’s superb and stroppy Ophelia, after she goes mad, is followed everywhere by two government agents. Clare Higgins’ Gertrude is superb, especially in her very moving scene with Hamlet in Act 2. Against this backdrop then Rory Kinnear gives us Hamlet, the ordinary man(even with the strange voices). He is a lone soul, his friendship with Horatio(intelligently performed by Giles Terera) quite understated, a youth struggling to work out a  plan against insurmountable forces and after his emotional and disturbing encounter with his father’s ghost (beautifully and quietly played by James Laurenson ).

But something amazing happens after Hamlet welcomes the travelling players and observes the player king act out his grief, whilst realising the parallels with his own situation. The soliloquy that follows “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I” is delivered with such sadness that you are literally grabbing the edge of your seat. It is not just that Hamlet changes, but Rory Kinnear’s performance appears from then on to change also, his voice seems darker, his movements sharper and more disconcerting. He is almost mesmerising.

This is Hamlet in deep and oft ‘manic’ depression rather than ‘madness’, as the character is often portrayed. The line “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” says it all. Rory Kinnear’s delivery of the very familiar “to be or not to be” soliloquy, fag in hand, perfectly shows Hamlet’s bewilderment and desperation. Of the three Hamlets I’ve seen, this is by far the best yet. Awesome.Contemporary productions of Shakespeare plays are not new, not even with the dissonant music, but it’s remarkable just how modern this feels, whilst remaining faithful to the original text. The language of the play is vibrant, alive and exciting and Rory Kinnear is brilliantly unorthodox in his approach.

I felt privileged to be at the National Theatre’s tour production. It is a ‘marathon’ three and a half hours long but we were so engrossed the time just whizzed by.
.Runs until Saturday 5th March 2011
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