Hamlet

Hamlet (2010)
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)

2 thoughts on “Hamlet

  1. Hamlet is quite possibly the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s plays, languishing as it does up there in the canon of literature along with his other great works like Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. It is also one of the longer plays that Shakespeare wrote and is accordingly abundantly rich in subject matter to delve into if one were so inclined.

    The most principal theme that courses through the play is arguably that of death – and that which follows. The death of Hamlet Senior stands at the base of the dramatical construct of the story, and the prompt appearance of his ghost becomes the catalyst for the events that follow.

    It becomes interesting, then, to stop here for a moment and contemplate the historical backdrop from which the play surfaced. We are in the early stages of the renaissance and the religious paradigm of the time is at the cusp of one of the greatest shifts that we’ve seen since the approbation of Christianity as official state religion in the Roman Empire. Man and the view of his identity, theoretically and theologically, is about to be completely revised from a theological standpoint.

    Let us take a closer look at what I purport to be the thematically climactic scene in the play and a culmination of many of the ideas that have been ruminated upon in its build-up: The first scene of the final act, 5.1.

    The movement of characters in the scene is interesting in itself, starting with two clowns and coming to a head in the penultimate confrontation between Laertes and Hamlet. The performance-related nature of the landed nobility has already been established both directly and indirectly earlier in the play, such as when Polonius affirms that he “did enact Julius Caesar. [He] was killed i’th’ / Capitol. Brutus killed [him].”(104-05.3.2.) Getting back to 5.1, we are shown a ridiculous performance in the guise of rivalry between Laertes and Hamlet as they struggle to demonstrate who loved her most. “Dost come here to whine,” declares hamlet, “To outface me with leaping in her grave? / Be buried quick with her, and so will I.” (277-79.5.1.)

    Now, I have allowed myself this slight thematic digression from the discussion of religion in the play in an attempt to ascertain that the construction of this scene was made to contrast the affected vanities of the noblemen. In this scene these vanities are put in juxtaposition for the audience by Hamlet, Laertes, and even the King, against the more – if you will excuse the beggared pun – grounded philosophy of the grave-diggers. They enter the scene with a question that effectively spells out our most important dilemma that we are confronted with in the play: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial, / when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?”(1-2.5.1.) The wording of this question is especially interesting when we consider the practical applications, or how they are presented by the play, of salvation.

    Salvation is something you attain by being a good person. Being a good person involves doing good acts, or so we must assume when faced with a play that focuses so much on the metaphysical implications of ones actions. We see this exemplified by Hamlet Senior as a ghost when he asks his son to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”(25.1.5.) An action has an inherent property that spawns a reaction which nature is determined by the circumstances in which the action is performed. We see this again when Hamlet sees his opportunity to murder the King his uncle while in apparent prayer: “A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven.”(76-78.3.3) Murder, or revenge if we choose to call it that, is shaded with a different color of judgement based on the setting of the act itself.

    This second example of actions being submittable to varying interpretations based on the manner or the setting of the act is particularly useful to my argument. This because the next stage of my reasoning will, aided again by our most wonderful grave-diggers in 5.1, move to the presentational essence of an action. Fore, as the grave-digger argues, and as Shakespeare seems to echo by the force of the mechanisms at work in his play, “an act has three branches – it is to / act, to do, to perform.”(31-2.5.1.) An act, in other words, is something which is given shape in the mind, acted upon, and finally comes into fruition as a display for others to see, even if the only one to witness it is God. This is evidenced by the ghost of Hamlet Senior. His brother was home free. He had gotten away with it. Everything was fairy tale happy in olden Denmark. That is, until the ghost appeared.

    To aim for a conclusion to this very shallow take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, let us for a moment return to the notion of salvation. If Ophelia’s salvation lies in her being buried as if she had not committed suicide, in the performance of ritual, what does that say about the morality of religion and of the church? If salvation lies in being murdered on your knees in a church instead of at the end of a poisoned rapier in the throne room, what is the function of Christianity in this society? That the play’s inception is dated to the throes of a paradigmatic shift of religion in renaissance England is interesting in this respect. For what was one of the most principal critiques of the Catholic Church if not its pension for giving salvation in exchange for performance?

    Shakespeare might not give us an answer to the question, but he does well enough, I think, to pose it.

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