How mind-bendingly meta, and uniquely remarkable, is it to watch a live (recorded) HD version of the world’s most famous play, which also contains a play, performed on a London stage, and shown in cinemas throughout the world? The second season of National Theatre Live (NTLive) offers up this special treat in its politically timely production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which has one more screening tonight (Dec. 16) at the Angelika Dallas, and plays for two nights in January at the Angelika Plano.
Nicholas Hytner, the National's artistic director since 2003, directs the play with a darkly cynical, almost paranoid touch that, as we are told in the short, behind-the-scenes interview before the show begins, is perfectly suited to this day and age of hyper-surveillance and loss of meaningful solitude.
Hytner gives us a modernized police state Elsinore made up of dark corners, sharp angles, AK-47-toting guards, and ever-present dark-suited operatives: all with the purpose of creating a stifling atmosphere of distrust for the audience and actors alike. Secrets, backroom deals and tactical removals abound in this martial-law Denmark.
Thrown into the fray is the reluctantly returned Hamlet (Rory Kinnear), who would much rather be back at school living in his head and reading Montaigne than dealing with the heavy aftermath of his father’s demise and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle.
Kinnear (a celebrated favorite of late at the National) is indeed the Hamlet for our time; a rumpled, bookish man-boy, replete with ubiquitous grad-school cigarettes, and an endless supply of hipster hoodies. However, Kinnear fleshes out what is often lost in many productions: Hamlet’s vast intellect and knack for human analysis.
Kinnear’s portrayal of the Danish prince pushes the truth that Hamlet is indeed the intellectual’s intellectual, while retaining an air of the Everyman. One of the enduring facets of Hamlet as a character is that we all see ourselves in him. He is universal in his appeal and charm because he seeks what we seek but essentially cannot handle: painful understanding of ourselves and others.
The range exhibited by Kinnear is impressive. Whether he is playing the brooding stepson, the erratically passionate boyfriend, the giddy theater groupie, the loyal friend, the probing psychoanalyst or the mock-crazy mental patient, he clearly outshines the rest of the workmanlike cast, as he should. His “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I” speech especially soars. From whispered asides to his anguished cries to the heavens, Kinnear delivers, and more impressively gains power as the play moves along. Hytner’s interpretation of the already suspicion-filled play, beckons us to overhear what is onstage, and Kinnear's Hamlet is the ultimate over-hearer, giving new life to those classic soliloquies by his uncanny ability to give the impression that he is hearing them himself for the first time as he is saying them.
A radiant yet childlike Ophelia (Ruth Negga) is the object of Hamlet’s haphazard ardor. With her plaintive tunes on the boombox, and stuffed animals, Negga comes off as a sort of precious teenager in love. Having an immature Ophelia elicits a novel aspect of Hamlet’s personality that longs for the things of his adolescence. Her blossoming youth also powers and informs Laertes’ (Alex Lanipekun) overprotectiveness for his sister, and makes her stripping to nearly topless all the more shocking during her descent into madness. The intimation that her death is not the result of suicide, but a hit ordered by the malevolent Claudius (Patrick Malahide), is an intriguing twist to the plot and adds to the Machiavellian milieu.
As for Lanipekun, granted, no one is a worthy foil for Hamlet, but this endless parade of weak, one-dimensional Laertes from actors is tiresome. Lanipekun is strapping and physically menacing, but lacks any substantial emotion other than barely contained and confused annoyance.
The decision to make Gertrude (Clare Higgins) more matronly and fiery than traditionally cast works for the cloak-and-dagger theme of the play. Instead of being an Oedipal object for Hamlet to rage at, Higgins brings an engaging amount of Lady Macbeth to the forefront. She allows the audience to see her attachment to Claudius as a political choice of advantage, not just loving convenience.
As Polonius, David Calder is another distinctive delight. His portrayal of the trusted counselor is more Karl Rove-like political operative than a doddering fool for comic relief. It’s too bad that Claudius (Patrick Malahide) falls a bit short as the fratricidal tyrant. His flatly cold performance is absent the emotional depth necessary to make Claudius more than just a cliché villain.
The visuals of the play come off quite effectively. Vicki Mortimer’s design is appropriately muted, drab and claustrophobic, clearly evocative of Cold War-era East Berlin. Music and sound by Alex Baranowski and Paul Groothuis strike the right propulsive, muscular mood with loud pop and industrial sounds for music, and roaring jets for sound effects.
Hytner’s take on this exceptionally probing drama, which simultaneously defies and begs for interpretation, is commendable for its courage to stick with a theme and explore it. His is a bleak, dystopian vision of our world where “something is rotten” and the play is an excellent tool by which to ponder it.
For Kinnear’s brainy, chilling performance and Hytner’s willingness to explore new themes in an old play, this is an opportunity that should not be missed.