dir. Nicholas Hytner
On October 24th, I went to a National Theatre Live screening of Nicholas Hytner’s 2010 production Hamlet, which featured Rory Kinnear in the lead role. The experience marked a few firsts for me. Not only would this be my first exposure to Hamlet in any capacity, but it would also be my first true experience of viewing a genuine Shakespeare stage production. When it comes to Shakespeare, it’s likely that the majority of people who attend productions of his work have already sat down and actually read the play once if not multiple times. With their knowledge of the plot and how it turns out, these audience members can then zero in on specific aspects of how it’s all presented i.e. the performances, the set design, the direction. But having no prior knowledge of Hamlet’s plot, I had to contend with getting absolutely everything from what was shown to me on screen, and I believe this granted me an interesting angle from which to critique the production.
To start, the way the production was shot made me feel as though I was standing right on stage with the performers. The alternations between close-ups and wide shots felt natural and the camera-work didn’t distract from the theatrical feel by trying anything cinematic. Whoever was in charge of shooting the performance obviously understood the dynamics of the theatre, and the camera work allowed for me as a viewer to focus on what I felt was important rather than direct me to what I should be focusing on. The feeling of being in a cinema quickly faded away early on.
A feeling of tight surveillance was present throughout the production, giving everything the royal headquarters of Denmark a very ‘White House’ feel. Hamlet and the other main characters were constantly shadowed by secret-servicemen complete with suits and earpieces. the modern and hip costuming of the characters gave them a visage of reality that can sometimes get lost with period-accurate costumes. The entire modernization of the set worked to this productions benefit, primarily because it accentuated the actions and themes of the work. So often, this popular device can come across as gimmicky, but here it didn’t feel like a cheap trick to me.
Of course, all the set design and production values aren’t much good without a dynamic and interesting cast. This is where my lack of previous experience with the play really informs my way of thinking. I found that the cast of this production of Hamlet was rounded out with some really charismatic performances. My approval of most of the cast must be partly due to the fact that I didn’t have a long list of previous portrayals to compare the actors to. But taken on their own, the principal performers didn’t disappoint. Rory Kinnear was fun to watch as Hamlet. I had previously only seen Kinnear turn up as a minor character in some of the more recent James Bond films, and while he was adequately good in his scenes, the nature of his role didn’t make a lasting impression. But here, Kinnear relished the role and played it with a distinctly modern edge, as if he was in on the absurdity of it all. He brought with him a number of little quirks and mannerisms, things that went by fast but added an authentic feel to his character. His animations and wild gesturing were effective without slipping into spectacle, and his delivery of the famous soliloquy was suitably wrought with instability. Clare Higgins was quite good as Gertrude, and Patrick Malahide played Claudius with a sliminess that was fun to watch. David Calder as Polonius was also particularly memorable, in no small part due to Calder’s impressionable nuances. The one principal performer who didn’t come across as particularly likable to me was Ruth Negga as Ophelia. I found her performance to be a little shrill and melodramatic for my taste, but it could be the characterization of Ophelia herself actually bleeding into my opinion of the actress’s portrayal.
The one mentionable flaw in the production, and it is a significant one, was the pacing. I feel as though a more mainstream viewer may have trouble with a play that is this long and this thorough. While I was able to remain engaged with the production, I did start to feel the length of it after intermission. But this is to be expected from a viewer who was primarily groomed on slick Hollywood films where pacing is brisk and run times are usually kept around the two hour mark. Still, this production of Hamlet can hold its head high, as it provided me with a way into the world of Shakespeare, along with some familiar faces and a cool look to help ease the fit. Productions like these have to be the way forward for Shakespeare in an increasingly theatre-phobic culture. Placing a bankable film actor in an iconic lead role is a template that has proven effective for drawing a larger demographic into the theatre, and the broadcastings of these performances on the big screen provide a convenient and affordable way for people like me to wander into the cinema and check it out. (J. Stamoulis, October 2013)