One of the most famous Shakespearean speeches, “to be or not to be”, is about to begin and Hamlet is at the front of the stage in a hoodie and puffing on a cigarette. This is Hamlet in modern day: he is dressed more like a student than a prince, Ophelia is first found listening to indie band The XX, and the players wear t-shirts with acid house smiley faces and “villain” across it in capital letters. If you’re a hardcore Hamlet-ite, you have been warned.
The play tells the story of Hamlet who is distraught by the recent death of his father, and “o’er hasty” marriage of his mother Gertrude to his uncle Claudius. He sees a ghost claiming to be his father, and it tells him to revenge his “foul and most unnatural murder” by Claudius. Director Nicholas Hytner’s version is refreshing, but the subtle changes certainly add to the text rather than take away from it: it is suggested that Ophelia’s death is a set-up not an accident, and there are secret agents often lurking onstage like sixteenth-century palace informers.
Rory Kinnear, son of late comedian Roy, is an outstanding Hamlet. He is played as an ordinary everyman in an extraordinary situation, and whose madness, which Kinnear excels at, is a comedy act. Kinnear effortlessly slips from being anxious to self-assured, from miserable to enraged, and in and out of Hamlet’s multifaceted parts. Clare Higgins Gertrude is played perfectly as the sympathetic mother with little attention to the Ernest Jones’ Oedipus Complex study, however Patrick Malahide’s Polonious remains a svengali figure with no suggestion that he could genuinely be in love with Gertrude.
The set, largely made up of white palace walls, works well indoors but does not always lend itself well to the outdoor scenes. One of the unexpected highlights, however, includes the players; what is often a dull moment in the play is vamped up with a dance narrating the story. Additionally you don’t notice that the play is a lengthy three hours and thirty minutes, instead it takes its time to simmer and sparkle. Hytner has done it: his previous work London Assurance was an eighteenth century comedy bash that was well received by critics, but Hamlet has been updated in a fresh and brave way for all audiences. A hit, a palpable hit.
Runs till 9 January, and tours the country until 12 March. Returns to National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre from 13 April till 23 April.
To see or not to see: * * * *