Review – Hamlet, National Theatre

Rory Kinnear ends his superb, career-defining performance as Hamlet with “The rest is silence.”  Unfortunately, the audience has other ideas and spend the next few minutes coughing away and playing their mobile phone ringtones. Note to self: never play Hamlet at the National Theatre in Autumn sniffle season.

Photo: National Theatre
Kinnear (who, despite the publicity photo, doesn’t look at all like Alan Hansen) is brilliant. He is at his best in the conversational rather than the poetic, but he brings real intelligence and comprehension to every line, not to mention genuine humour. Even the obvious (“Buzz buzz”, “Except my life”, “Hawk from a handsaw”) feel fresh in his voice.

There are plenty of other strong performances (Alex Lanipekun as Laertes and Ruth Negga as a brilliant Ophelia) but they, and Kinnear’s tour de force, is lost amid a production that feels like it is striving for something which it never reaches.

There’s nothing wrong with a production of a classic which doesn’t wear its motifs on its sleeves, which lets the text and the performances speak for themselves. Or a production which uses the themes from a classic to make its own intelligent point. But we get neither from Mr Hytner’s production. We get a production heavy with metahpors (it’s all about a surveillance state) which never take flight sufficiently to justify the hinderance they offer to the performances.

The set, for instance, doesn’t work at all. It’s a West Wing-style effort, all white plaster and glass windows (linking to the theme of surveillance and observation, geddit?), but it ended up being just ugly and distracting. For one thing, it seemed to not be quite finished (it was a preview – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the NT carpentry department is feverishly working away ahead of press night). In any case, it added nothing and detracted a little something.

The production is also stupifyingly long. Three hours and thirty minutes according to the programme, but we didn’t finish the first half until almost nine o’clock (after a seven o’clock start) – there are some pieces of text which I’ve never seen performed before, and you sometimes wonder whether Mr Hytner might have been a little more liberal with the red ink to some benefit. Do we really need another scene with Polonius being Polonial? (Again, caveat that this was a preview so there might be cuts coming)

This is a great production – there are incredible, remarkable, memorable moments in it. The final scene is fantastically performed (despite the best efforts of the audience). Kinnear is really excellent. But there are enough of those little, detracting somethings to make it feel like great performances lost in a production, rather than a production which ever really comes together.