It’s been a busy last couple of years for starry productions of Hamlet, what with David Tennant at the RSC, Jude Law at the Donmar, John Simm up in Sheffield and now Rory Kinnear in Nicholas Hytner’s new production at the National. It’s always one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, combining a gripping narrative with some of the greatest verse in the English language, but this sudden spate of stagings might make even the most committed Bard fan weary of the stale, flat and unprofitable uses of artistic directors’ time. Except of course when it’s as gripping and vital as this, which is about as far from stale and flat (and, judging by the sold-out audience when I attended, unprofitable) as can be imagined.

Hytner’s first innovation is to set the play explicitly in a police state. All the characters are being watched, either by the ever-present CCTV  or by the suited apparatchiks, forever muttering into their earpieces. The political undertones, so often soft-pedalled in performance, are here brought to the fore. Claudius, riskily but successfully played by Patrick Malahide as a vaguely Putin-esque despot, addresses his public speeches to ever-present  cameras. Dissenters, whether they’re the players, Laertes’ army or even Hamlet himself, are led away by armed men or threatened with torture. Against the ubiquitous sense of violence and paranoia, the question is asked, implicitly, ‘Does one man’s life really matter?’

The answer, thrillingly, is ‘yes’, because Rory Kinnear’s quite astonishing performance more or less redefines what an audience expects from Hamlet. Kinnear, as anyone who has seen him in such earlier plays as The Man Of Mode, Burnt By The Sun or The Revenger’s Tragedy knows, has a magnificent speaking voice, perfect comic timing and the rare ability to swing from high tragedy to low comedy in an instant. What he does here, and it’s both mesmerising and eventually highly moving, is to humanise Hamlet completely. His prince isn’t mad, or transfixed with incestuous desire for his mother, or an impotent wretch unable to avenge his father’s murder. Instead, he’s a young man devastated by grief who gradually comes to realise his destiny is one suffused by violence and loss.  The first half, daringly, ends with Hamlet after his exposure of Claudius at the play-within-a-play, but far from seeing him in celebratory mood, he is centre stage, wracked with horrendous sobs of grief.

There are countless things to admire in this production. Clare Higgins’ Gertrude is played as a semi-drunk lush, initially flattered but ultimately repulsed by Claudius’ attentions, as she comes to realise that all is indeed rotten in this state of Denmark. She’s also central to a remarkably original coup de theatre in the closet scene, where it’s made clear that she, too, sees the ghost of her former husband, but tries, in vain, to deny it to herself, even as the ocular proof presents itself. And David Calder’s Polonius is simultaneously a hard-edged spymaster and an ageing man apparently on the verge of Alzheimer’s, forever losing his train of thought and apparently wracked by guilt in his own apparent involvement in old Hamlet’s murder.

This energetic, intelligent staging moves at a tremendous pace throughout its three-and-three quarter running time, keeping the action as gripping as any modern political thriller, but allowing for grace notes throughout, such as the moving depiction of Ruth Negga’s Ophelia being bumped off and a disgusted Gertude’s account of her faked suicide showing the moral corruption endemic within the court. It’s always tempting fate to come out with superlatives, but I can’t remember seeing a clearer, more gripping or more emotionally rich production of this great play.


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