Spellbinding intimacy ought to be impossible on the vast Olivier amphitheater stage, but it’s there throughout the National’s riveting new “Hamlet.” Thirty-two-year-old Rory Kinnear’s startlingly insightful, career-making performance as the Dane is pivotal to the production’s success, but it gains immeasurably from being completely woven into the texture of Nicholas Hytner’s commandingly intelligent rethink.
The world of this trimmed but textually unaltered “Hamlet” is a 21st-century version of the Elizabethan one in which it was written: a court enforced by spies and threatened by consciences, most of them guilty. Thus, Vicki Mortimer’s contemporary design — a versatile set of movable walls and windows — provides a variety of elegant rooms and corridors and dangerous spaces filled with possibilities for surveillance.
Claudius (Patrick Malahide) delivers his opening speech concerning “our dear brother” not just to the court, but to a video crew. This neatly underlines the insincerity of his public address, but by choosing not to show the actual video image, Hytner typically avoids overemphasis. His restraint throughout keeps audiences fixed not on his directorial ideas, but on the actors.
That is central to an overall interpretation governed by the play’s fascination with theatricality, actors and acting — “Seems, madam!” queries Hamlet, “Nay, it is.” Thus, James Laurenson’s beautifully rendered Player King becomes not the bombastic orator of many productions but a good actor; hence Kinnear’s sense of shock, which reverberates so movingly through “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!,” his response to the Player’s performance.
Like almost all the soliloquies, that’s delivered on the stage apron — Mortimer’s set is, in essence, a large Shakespearean inner stage — which allows Kinnear to buttonhole the audience with ease. That seeming lack of visible effort is the hallmark of his performance. Other recent Hamlets, notably Jude Law and David Tennant, have been more physically strenuous and emotionally volatile. But aside from his deliberately “acted” scenes of antic disposition, Kinnear’s physicality is highly compacted. What becomes increasingly moving is his internal struggle as his thoughts and fears threaten to tear him apart.
In place of high emoting, there’s emotional and intellectual clarity. Hamlet’s prevarication becomes expressly the result of his being too smart to merely follow impulses. His intelligence, and Kinnear’s, allows him to communicate through every precisely isolated phrase and filled silence. So when his instincts break free, the effect is shocking, as in his abrupt rejection of Ophelia (Ruth Negga). We see his sudden realization that since she’s the daughter not of a doddering old fool, but of the court spymaster, she’s in on the game, and the book she’s holding probably houses a concealed microphone.
His furious distress at her betrayal gives momentum to the brilliantly reconceived closet scene in which Clare Higgins’ hitherto grand, big-drinking Gertrude is wonderfully undone by the fact that she actually sees the ghost (Laurenson). It’s a revelatory moment that subsequently fuels her rage at Ophelia’s death. “Drowned?” she cries, less in horror than enraged disbelief.
Not everything works. Some of the subsidiary roles are less than ideally realized, and even Hytner can’t solve the problem of Ophelia being so impossibly underwritten. He presents Ophelia as having worked out what Claudius is up to, but having her wheel on her incriminating evidence in a supermarket trolley is a rare instance of overstatement.
Traditionalists won’t be pleased with a Hamlet who, for the most part, dresses like a grungy student; nor will those seeking a supposedly radical take. But this unfashionably unflashy, dramatically incisive production is so exacting that it makes you understand and feel exactly why the play is a masterpiece.