A thoroughly modern monarchy

Hamlet – National Theatre, 23 April 2011

Approaching a play with as much weight and complexity as Hamlet there are numerous decisions that have to be made. It is too big, too vast in subject matter and character to tackle every angle in one production. Recent productions of Hamlet in London, as good as they were, have been driven in part by the celebrity of the actors and as a result we have had productions that are unashamedly an “actor’s” Hamlet. We have had David Tennant; quick-witted and verbally nimble, playfully engaging with the comedic nature of Hamlet’s flurries of stage-managed madness (pushed on by an excellent rapport with Oliver Ford Davies’ masterful Polonius). Hot on his heels was Jude Law; here Hamlet is emotionally angry, powerful yet filled with an engaging vulnerability. There is clearly nothing wrong with productions where Hamlet is front and centre but watching Patrick Stewart as Claudius in the RSC version, it felt a little unfortunate that such a versatile actor was left playing such a complex and interesting part in the shadows of Tennant’s performance. It seemed as if an instruction had been given to rein in the performance to allow Tennant the room to perform.

From the off Nicholas Hytner’s Hamlet steps back and places the play in context. As the house lights fade to black, the audience are met with the sound of an aeroplane cutting through the stillness as it flies by overhead. The soldiers actually look like they are patrolling and the entrance of the ghost is met with an alertness that suggests infiltrators and enemies hovering in the shadows. The spectre of Fortinbras and war loom larger over this version of Hamlet than any other I have seen. As a result this is a play about paranoia, fear and surveillance. We are reminded continually that, whether or not something is rotten in the state of Denmark, this is a Claudius unwilling to anything to chance. Outside every door are ear-piece wearing security guards, however as the play continues it becomes increasingly evident that their presence is less to protect and more to provide Claudius with additional eyes and ears. Hamlet, Ophelia and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are monitored throughout and each entrance and exit is swiftly followed by their ‘security’. This gives Hamlet’s ‘Now I am alone’ (ii.ii) a sense of real power as the audience realises that, for the first time in the play, Hamlet can talk freely, and in doing so can give full attention to his plan to use the play to trap Claudius…Continue Reading Here

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