National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)
Review by Philip Fisher
Nicholas Hytner opened his tenure as Director of the National Theatre with an explosive modern dress version of Henry V and his Hamlet is similarly up-to-date and equally effective.
Hytner has not done much wrong since that spectacular start and the first National Theatre Hamlet in a decade does not disappoint.
In fact, there are strong echoes of John Caird's unforgettable production downstairs in the Lyttelton all those years ago. Rory Kinnear in the lead today speaks with the marvellous clarity and alluring tones of Simon Russell Beale, and, like him, conquers the role with aplomb.
The production itself perhaps has more in common with Sir Trevor Nunn's at the Old Vic starring another great verse speaker, Ben Whishaw, in that it is characterised by Alex Baranowski's rock music and dress that comes in three brands, expensive designer, shabby youth chic and the frankly sinister.
From the start of a very full version that comes in at around 3 hours 40 minutes, Hytner and his star work together to bring meaning to the text for a contemporary audience, avoiding staid declamation and finding odd moments of humour to leaven the tragedy.
Frequently, there are novel and often insightful new interpretations to keep viewers on their toes. Speed is also important and Vicki Mortimer's very simple staging with roll-on roll-off props achieves that.
Kinnear is undoubtedly the star, delivering every soliloquy in an unorthodox fashion, sitting, leaning, standing at the corner of the stage or, for "To Be or Not to Be", at an angle to the audience, contemplatively smoking.
This is a youngish man unable to take decisive action and as a result driven to distraction rather than madness by first the loss of his father and then the old man's return in ghostly form demanding vengeance. Young Hamlet also has a vindictive streak that leads to satirical but still harsh attacks on almost all those with whom he comes into contact.
This naturalistic behaviour holds the attention and has the desired effect of making the text accessible to a modern audience that might otherwise struggle with the language and sentiments.
The National Theatre no longer has an ensemble but for this Hamlet has drawn on numerous stalwarts who have spent many hours treading the boards on the South Bank.
Ruth Negga is a trendy, young Ophelia driven mad by unrequited love and the death of her father Polonius, played as less of a comedy figure than usual by a brave David Calder, who was clearly ailing on opening night.
Patrick Malahide always does a good job in malignity and his Claudius has all of the trappings of a deeply unpleasant and wholly ruthless businessman, even when canoodling with his new wife Gertrude (Clare Higgins). Elsewhere, James Laurenson is a ghost with the human touch and Alex Lanipekun a muscular, dashing Laertes.
Quite why something this special, which would seem to be easily marketable, should be in the Travelex £10 season is a mini mystery but readers need not worry about the economics - just take advantage before all of the tickets sell out.