The National Theatre’s Hamlet
is pretty good, and Rory Kinnear’s very good indeed. Lucid, clear,
funny, eccentric. Ever since David Warner for the RSC in 1965, it’s
become conventional to play Hamlet as a rebellious student, and it’s a
good time for rebellious students and do a good time for Hamlet. Rory
Kinnear’s student is stifled by living with his parents, longs for the
companionship of his student friends, plans to travel in his gap year
and rages blindly at authority. The production’s nicely updated to, to,
to, well I suppose some kind of contemporary Eastern European state,
stuffy, over-decked out in palaces, television coverage and security
Not for the first time, I’m struck by
what a weird and shapeless play this is. Tons of it is incoherent and
implausible; there’s really no clear answer to why Hamlet treats Ophelia
the way he does and his plan to catch the conscience of the king is
rubbish. It’s a mystery why the king fails to spot the depiction of his
crime when the players do it in dumbshow and I always feel his treatment
of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is pointlessly cruel.
Now, I’m not dumb. There are reasons one
can concoct for all these things, but the play doesn’t seem overly
concerned about answering them. It’s a clotted play; clotted with
language and with the complexity of human motivations. It is striking
how obsessed the play is with the idea of human beings as rational
animals, whether it thinks this is right or wrong. Perhaps in the very
confusions of the play lie a vision of human thought.
The thing that always surprises me in
performance is the fourth act. The first act is battlements and the
ghost; the second and third takes us through the actors and then the two
failed murders of Claudius - one when he mistakenly thinks the king is
at prayer and the other when he kills Polonius. The fifth act is
Hamlet’s return and the duel. The fourth act is close to farce, with
Hamlet hiding Polonius’s body around the palace, being sent to England
and returning, Ophelia’s madness and drowning.
It’s a very difficult act to get right.
It both broadens the play out - it’s an act about intrigues and power
play, about authority and chaos, Hamlet as a kind of Fool. In David
Tennant’s version, the last I saw, the political dimension was less to
the fore than the idea of Hamlet as a zany pricker of pomposity (from
memory, they may even have cut his encounter with Fortinbras’s army?).
In this, it’s very much about an authoritarian state coping with a rogue
element (in Hytner’s production, Ophelia is clearly killed by agents of
the state, giving Gertrude’s narration of it a horrifyingly
Those like Hytner who want to tell us a story about power and its instabilities will find plenty here; those who find Hamlet
to be a play about Hamlet, his intensity, his brooding, his anguish and
indecision, will enjoy this act too. The only people I can’t imagine
getting much out of this act are those who want the play to be in any
sense a classical tragedy. In some productions - like Greg Doran’s - the
farcical aspects are brought to the fore, but they’re impossible to
entirely dismiss. The speed at which we find Hamlet dismissed to England
and then returned to Denmark tends towards funny. I have never seen a
production that makes Ophelia’s mad scene genuinely moving (I would love
to have seen Glenda Jackson play Ophelia to David Warner’s Hamlet,
though; the pictures are so astonishing).
When I think of Hamlet I generally forget this act; in my memory the play goes pretty much straight from the death of Polonius to Hamlet’s exile. But whenever I see it, it’s this act that strikes me anew. It’s where the play’s fascination with what makes a person, what the springs of action are, the unfathomability of the self to itself is turned outward into a vision of the state and the precariousness of political power.