When I came out of the NT Live screening of the National Theatre’s Hamlet last December, my first response was that the director Nicholas Hytner wanted to create a production that was very different from Greg Doran’s 2008 production. Whereas in Doran’s production, David Tennant played up the comedy, I felt that Kinnear’s performance was of a man who was agitated. I’m not saying that I didn’t think that Rory Kinnear wasn’t humorous at points, but he was also more intense than Tennant. A key image through the National production was the surveillance society. I know in the TV version Doran added in the surveillance theme, but it wasn’t emphasised as much in his stage production to the same extent as it was in the TV adaptation. Recently, I went to see the Northern Broadsides’ production, and it reflected moments from both the RSC and National productions as well as bringing some new interpretations as well.
The surveillance society was key to the National Theatre production. The security guards were always closing in on characters as indeed walls did at times. The younger generation were being constantly watched and it was clear that they were feeling really hurt about this. The microphone hidden in Ophelia’s bible during the nunnery scene was a really good example of this, and the photographs Polonius has of Ophelia nod Hamlet together. This was a world in which camera and crews are ever present and Claudius’s public speech in act 1, scene 2 works well as a piece to camera. Fortinbras speaks the final speech to camera as well.
Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet starts the play as a frustrated young man, because his voice is denied and that his petition to the King to go back to Wittenberg is rejected. Going to Wittenberg was clearly very important for Hamlet and as the play progresses he becomes more agitated. One of the most successful devices for me was the way that ‘Villain’ was empathised through the writing on wall and which became the slogan on the T shirt. The smiling villain scratched on the wall after Hamlet as seen the ghost becomes a T Shirt, which is given out to the audience at The Mousetrap. Interestingly the younger generation wear theirs, but the older generation hold not sure what to do with them and seem very uncomfortable with them. In the Northern Broadsides production, the idea of ‘setting’ down was also to write villain and this device was used again to start off Hamlet (Nicholas Shaw) ‘to or not to be speech..”
I liked the claustrophobic feel of the National production. The scenery moved in on itself, and seemed to trap characters into confined spaces. I felt that this element came across really well on the NT Live screening, because the cameras focused in on those spaces.
I thought Patrick Malhide’s Claudus was sensational and within this world of spies he was very threatening. I loved the way that the portrait of old Hamlet was changed very quickly to one of him that seemed to dominate the stage at times. Claire Higgins plays a Gertrude who can’t cope with the situation. What seemed like it might be the good life at the start turns into a nightmare in the end. Alcohol plays a big part in the production and the downfall of Claudius. Claudius’ speech in 1.1 was a broadcast, I know this isn’t new and was done to great effect in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film, but it was played very well in this production. In the Northern Broadsides version Claudius (Fine Time Fontayne) and Gertrude (Becky Hindley) like to party, and contrasted very much with the National Production portrayal of the characters, where the consumption of alcohol moves very quickly from a social act to one of despair.
Seeing the National production well after the previews, I was advised to avoid the spoilers. However, that’s really difficult and having picked up that Ophelia was literally off her trolley, I was expecting that Ophelia would be pushing a shopping trolley in her mad scenes, and of course this is what happens.
There is always an excitement in seeing another Hamlet, and seeing the Broadsides and National productions so close together was a very interesting experience, again highlighting how different approaches can bring very different readings of the text(s). For me, what helps make a good production on a personal level is that I come away thinking about the text(s) in ways I haven’t done before.