From bitterweet tunes, to a smoking prince.
Hamlet - NT Live! Broadway cinema, Nottingham Thursday 9 December 2010
Second Hamlet this year, and you can easily see how the Sheffield production suffers for running alongside the National Theatre's majestic version. Proximity of versions can be a hinderance, because it can highlight limitations that are no where near as glaring as they appear under the spotlight of a more successful version. Sheffield's production had some wonderful moments, not least those offered by a less-than-aware audience of the nuances of the plot, so that reactions were all the more acute and revelatory.
Here, the revelations come particularly from the direction and staging: this is a very 'police state' version of Elsinore, spies everywhere and nearly every role inflected by that decision --- though there are laughs, this is not a mecurial and funny Hamlet (either in terms of the play or the character). There is a weariness, a bitterness here befitting of the surveillance everyone exists under/operates on others. No wonder Hamlet describes this earth as a "sterile promentory". No wonder too that Calder's Polonius seems more distracted by what should be said, can be said in front of the ever-present spies, than by any humourous diminishing of his faculties. This Polonius may prattle, but it is in the context of a watchful state, where protecting one's position is all.
I'm trying to not give too much away about the direction/staging, because the production tours next year and I'd like it to be as fresh as possible for those audiences. For example, there are a number of elements regarding Ophelia which make what happens to her through the play narrative (her opening conversation with her brother and father; the nunnery scene; her death) possibly the most fascinating construction of the character I have seen. But I don't want to tell those here. Still, these choices are important to mention as they probably compensates for a performance that didn't quite come together for me: then again, Ophelia is really tough role to inhabit.
Clare Higgins is as wonderful as ever: she is such an incredible actress. Her Gertrude is one who sees/understands more than she lets on, who understands her own vulnerabilities far earlier in the play than is usual. She is incredibly expressive in her interactions with Hamlet, not least in the closet scene. One does wonder though what she sees in Claudius (as this production moves away from the trend of having a single actor play both King Hamlet's ghost and his brother Claudius). Malahide brings his usual and prefectly balanced portrayal of oiliness and ambition to the stage, but it is hard to see what any widow would love in him (except perhaps protection of her role as Queen).
Kinnear nevertheless manages to make a real impact as Hamlet; his delivery really comes into its own after the players arive and develops from there. He isn't princely, but rather an everyman who just happens to be the position of prince (an accident of birth that can be as easily usurped as sanity may be challenged).
One choice of the staging/direction that DOES rankle though is to make Hamlet a smoker: whilst this gives ample opportunity for certain breaths and pauses to be emphasised, it comes across more as an excuse to allow the actor TO smoke on stage. (The smoking so irritated Cloud that he was near cheering for Laertes to win the duel at the end, and this performance didn't deserve such empathy as it only really sparked when Laertes returns and attempts to overthrow the palace/Claudius after Polonius's death).
Others have praised Kinnear far better and more eloquently than I could manage: it IS a wonderful performance and much deserving of his reward from the Evening Standard Theatre awards 2010. A definite triumph and worth seeing.