National Theatre production
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
Salford is attracting some of the real big guns when it comes to Shakespeare at the moment, both in terms of the plays themselves and the companies performing them. Next month, the great Derek Jacobi scales the dizzying heights of King Lear in Michael Grandage's production for the Donmar Warehouse, and this week Rory Kinnear gives us a Hamlet that has just received a Best Actor nomination in the Olivier Awards in a production from Nick Hytner for the National Theatre.
As we have come to expect from the National Theatre, this is a production with 'quality' stamped all over it, from the calibre of the actors right through the simple but effective set design, the lighting, a score that covers many styles of music and the extraordinary attention to detail. Designer Vicki Mortimer gives us a setting that is firmly in the present, but where some modern-dress productions in suits seem to be more about the demotion of a middle manager than the fall of a king, here we get a definite impression of the state offices and apartments of a modern country. There is a European feel to the design, but otherwise this could just as easily be Downing Street or the White House as an African or Middle Eastern dictatorship.
There are subtly-introduced little 'media moments' for Claudius (and Fortinbras at the end) where flashguns go off and cameras, lights and microphone booms are pointed at him; this could look like a gimmick but just works naturally and seems to make sense with a text that was created long before any of this technology was invented. There is a constant presence of men in suits and red ties with earpieces and concealed weapons, military personnel with much heavier weaponry ready to be brought in at a moment's notice and the sound of military jet fighters that opens and closes the production that adds to the constant sense of danger and power, relating the power relationships within the play to a modern audience without forcing a simplistic or distorted reading of the play or replacing the richness of Shakespeare's vision with the narrowness of a director's.
Kinnear is every bit the moody young man whose emotions are all extreme but can change at the drop of a hat, but he also brings a lot of humour into the play. His 'mad scenes' are done in a silly falsetto voice that is played up for Polonius's benefit but qualified with a role of the eyes when he turns to the audience. David Calder's Polonius doesn't overplay the bluster and wordiness of the character as the reactions of the others say enough, but he shows a genuine and quite moving father's concern for both of his children. Patrick Malahide's Claudius is very much at home in the media spotlight and understands the power of the media image, but he turns to sinister and underhand methods to cling onto his power. Clare Higgins as Gertrude plays the loyal wife for the media and her public and shows great motherly concern for young Hamlet even if she doesn't take his ideas seriously. Ruth Negga as Ophelia and Alex Lanipekun as Laertes are totally convincing as a modern young brother and sister who can wind one another up playfully but have a very close and loving family bond. All of the characters are richly-textured and detailed so that all are believable as real, complex human beings.
There is often a jarring clash between modern dress and Shakespeare's 400-year-old language and verse, but this production shows that if, while still respecting the verse, the words can be delivered in almost as natural a way as in a modern play, there is no clash to break the illusion for the audience. In fact, Hytner's production almost feels like a modern play, albeit with a very familiar story, that sits comfortably in the modern world. This is three and a half hours of theatrical magic.
Until 12th February
Reviewer: David Chadderton