Hamlet. One of Shakespeare’s most renown and powerful tragedies; complex explorations of such themes as power, mental indecision, incest, treachery and misogyny. But did the National Theatre create a refreshing and engaging production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies? Not quite.
I arrived at the Theatre Royal with high expectations of the National Theatre’s Hamlet, a production that received a 5-star review from The Times. Admittedly, I should not have let this horizon of expectation cloud my thoughts. In the opening scene, the spotlight focused in on Francisco (the officer on watch outside Elsinore Castle) with the rest of the stage hidden in shadow, whilst an ominous mist and musical drone created a surreal, haunting atmosphere. The ensuing action between the guards as they encountered the ghost of Old Hamlet was very powerful and convincing, with James Laurenson (Old Hamlet) holding a gaze so intense that I could almost feel his eyes on me; adeptly communicating to the terrified officers and the audience that he had something important to disclose. This escapism and wonder made for a great first impression – one that was soon to be altered by the following scenes.
The stark difference in costume design in the next scene was immediately confusing. In the former scene, the night guards were dressed in what appeared to be Clay Pigeon Shooting attire from the 1940s, yet when the action moved to the inside of Elsinore Castle for the formal announcement of King Hamlet’s death, everyone was dressed in contemporary business suits. This threw me off course as my inability to understand in what time period the adaptation was set stopped me from fully engaging with the action. Perhaps this was done purposefully to emphasise the perennial importance of Shakespeare’s characters’ ‘human condition’ spanning all time periods, but I felt that this was perhaps more of a design fault.
Aside from the costume design, the set design was fantastically simple. Flats with Colonial-style furnishings dominated the stage (Proscenium Arch staging with a very small Apron) and were angled to create varying depths and spaces for the numerous rooms in the grand castle. This made me really believe in the large expanse of Elsinore. Embellishing the set was an endless amount of Security Guards dressed in black suits with earpieces and guns tucked into their belts. While these Guards took part in some of the action shared amongst the main characters, they ultimately became a part of the set, moving the flats/props and portraying the sense that Elsinore’s residents are under constant surveillance. While this began as an interesting comment on the horrifying amount of monitoring of our everyday lives in the 21st century, this concept failed to develop and I grew tired of watching robotic men walk about, whispering into mouthpieces and generally distracting me.
One of the most engaging aspects, however, was the Player’s performance of the silent ‘dumbshow’ to Claudius and his court. This was performed using mime and it was the most impressive part of the whole production, crudely illustrating the magnitude of Claudius’ sin via the mime artists’ melodramatic sexual movements and violent poisoning of the King. This malice was emphasised by a sharp spotlight centre-stage that focused the audience’s attention on the King’s pain, and also by the painted smiles on the Nephew/Queen’s faces; opposing any perceptions that people cannot rejoice in murder.
Conversely, the majority of the acting in the production overall was quite disappointing. Rory Kinnear (Hamlet) and David Clader (Polonius/Gravedigger) were a few of the only really impressive actors, with Kinnear embodying an acute understanding of Hamlet’s character, and Clader actually being Polonius in true Stanislavskian-style. Clare Higgins (Gertrude) and Ruth Negga (Ophelia) completely over-acted their roles and were painful to watch. Perhaps due to this, or to the extreme rushing of lines as in Giles Terera’s (Horatio) case, it was very difficult to believe in the characters and I thus failed to empathise with the ongoing action. This culminated in the final scene (the fencing match) where the actual tragedy of the situation was hindered by Gertrude’s (Higgins) false wails and pathetic stumbling around the stage (to name but a few embarrassing moments) and ultimately lay in the fact that I felt more like laughing than crying at the end of one of Shakespeare’s most potent tragedies.
While the set design was ingenious and some of the acting brilliant, the general level of reasonably-good acting for a National Theatre cast and the production’s feeble attempts at creating effective, underlying contemporary political comments resulted in me only half enjoying the performance and feeling quite disengaged throughout.