Littleton, 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.
This then is a director’s Hamlet. There is a tangible thread running through the play and lines that may be cut in other productions remain, in particular Hamlet’s conversations with a Captain in Fortinbras’ army and a full length final scene; the purpose of this to provide an ever-present context of the enemy abroad. As a result it is clear that the fear of a known but mainly unseen enemy has penetrated court life. Everyone is watched and everyone is watching. Through this Polonius, while having comic lines, becomes a much more complex figure. He is still an old man prone to forgetting his sentences but one realises that within him lies a steely heart that has allowed him to survive at the heart of action for many years. He is at least partly responsible for bugging Ophelia’s conversation with Hamlet, and assigning Reynaldo to watch over Laertes in France takes on a more sinister overtones as we realise that this a man who got to where he is by implicitly understanding the maxim that information is power.
And because of this he indirectly leads to the death of the Ophelia. “Come, we go to the king: this must be known” (Polonius, ii.i) becomes a pivotal moment in the play. Polonius, perhaps safeguarding his position, understands that there is mileage in bringing Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship to the attention of Claudius. Indeed the conviction with which the line is delivered makes one suspect that Polonius is aware that not revealing the relationship could be even more dangerous. This is a court with spies everywhere, security guards are always present, and to withhold information is an unwise policy. However by bugging Ophelia’s book, and Hamlet’s discovery of this fact, Claudius and Polonius destroy any trust in the relationship and sends Ophelia into her spiral of madness. It is here Hytner makes one of his boldest strokes; Ophelia’s death is no suicide but an explicit order from Claudius, who, panicking over the return of Laertes, realises that Ophelia knows too much and must be silenced. The audience are not shown her death but do see the arrival of the security guards and are left to make their own judgement.
In doing this Hytner is taking a degree of dramatic license but he has presented such a strong context that the action does not feel disjointed. It is also important in developing the character of Claudius. This is a Hamlet where Claudius and Hamlet have an almost equal presence. In Claudius we are reminded of South American military republics, a charismatic leader ruling through a mixture of personality and iron-will. This is a very modern leader who understands the power of image. His initial speech is delivered to camera, a reassurance to his subjects of stability in the land. (This is brilliantly echoed in the closing moments of the play, as Fortinbras stands over the bodies of Hamlet and Laertes. As the surviving courtiers ingratiate themselves with Fortinbras’ travelling guard you realise that little has changed and that it is likely the old ways will remain, just under a new leader.) We often see Claudius at this his desk, looking over documents and scanning through manila envelopes, and we get the sense that his power relies on those slight documents; a point neatly foreshadowed by Polonius when he brandishes his own folder at Ophelia, showing surveillance camera images of her and Hamlet together. Again the sense is given that at Elsinore nothing is unseen.
Claudius has instituted a surveillance state where disobeying an order is not an option. There are no laughs in the traditionally slightly comic Rosencrantz & Guildernstern scenes; they are palpably nervous before their first meeting with Claudius and they are reminiscent of the innocents that were dragged into police stations in the Soviet Union and encouraged to keep an eye on their neighbours. Likewise, another bold move, we see the Player’s rounded up by guards at gunpoint after their performance; Claudius clearly not amused by what he had seen. Comment and dissent of any kind will be crushed – for it is too dangerous for Claudius not to.
This production is a great counterpoint to recent versions of Hamlet. If Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet feels a little constricted then we can point to a state that expressly prohibits the flourishing of flights of fancy. His madness is a concern not just because of what it will do to him but his theories and his accusation destabilise the state; he is sent abroad as he was beginning to raise questions at a dangerous time. Patrick Malahide’s Claudius is the focal point for much of the play and, whether the physical similarity to Putin is intended, inhabits the role with the requisite amount of calculated determinism. Ophelia’s death is a chilling moment, balanced alongside a superbly judged reaction to the news that Polonius had died, leaving behind an impression that this is a man who would safeguard his power at all costs. Hytner’s vision of Hamlet, with the full support of a strong ensemble cast, reinforce the fact that this is a play that still has much to say about the modern world.