Friday, October 29, 2010

This week the time had come to go back to the bosom of the Bard, namely Nicholas Hytner's production of HAMLET at the Olivier Theatre.Right from the start, with the roar of a fighter plane and the appearance of Francisco, Bernardo and Marcellus in greatcoats carrying assault rifles, the production sets up a Denmark on a war footing while the second scene presents us with a West Wing-style court with Claudius giving his opening speech to a news camera team while security men and apparatchiks linger in the background.

Yes it's a very 21st Century Elsinore, well alluded to with little details like Hamlet and Laertes having to obtain Claudius' signature to leave the country with their passport as evidence and Polonious showing Ophelia surveillance photographs of her with Hamlet as well as planting a tape recorder in the book she carries in the 'Nunnery' speech scene.It was earlier in the day that I realised this would be my first HAMLET at the Olivier since seeing Ian Charleson - gulp - 21 years ago. I have blogged before that I doubt I will ever see a HAMLET to rival Ian's - his suffering from the AIDS virus which would claim him less than three months later gave his performance a power beyond the written word. Indeed once or twice I found myself moist-eyed remembering him, in particular the "We defy augury" speech which I will never hear bettered.

From his opening scene Rory Kinnear set off on an interesting course: pugnacious and sardonic, a hard-edged melancholia but with a very masculine gentleness in the soliloquies which he spoke beautifully so you almost felt you were hearing them a-new. His was not the most immediately winning of Hamlets but I warmed to his performance and this seals his place at the top-table of current stage actors. It also seemed to be more of a performance than a star turn so he certainly banished memories of Jude Law.
The other big selling point of the show was to see Clare Higgins as Gertrude and she gave a memorable portrayal of a professional First Lady who grabs the nearest drink whenever she feels the attention is off her which, of course, sets up her incredulous refusal at Claudius' entreaty for her not to drink in the final scene. It was good that the modern dress choice of the production didn't mean they dropped the end of her speech about Ophelia's drowning - "her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up" which was absurdly cut in Michael Grandage's production at the Wyndhams last year.

Oh and speaking of that production, sadly here again Gertrude has to suffer the indignity of having practically the smallest royal wardrobe! Mind you, she was spared the indignity of Penelope Wilton's cardigans, going instead for a tight-fitting sheath dress, occasional matching suit and tottering high heels. Sadly while she was being bounced from couch to couch in the closet scene the thought of Miss Piggy suddenly sprung to mind. Don't blame me Clare, blame Vicki Mortimer's costume and the hair-stylist.

Sadly for me, the biggest mis-step in the production was the Claudius of Patrick Malahide. I was looking forward to his interpretation but again, very early on I got the mental image of Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons" and nothing in his vocally thin performance could shift that.
David Calder has also a bit of a let-down as Polonious (looking frighteningly like Charles Clarke!) - this is where the Grandage production triumphed in the great double-act of Kevin McNally and Ron Cook in these roles. However Calder was more effective as the Gravedigger. Giles Terera was also a lightweight Horatio - mind you, he was scuppered from the get-go by the awful idea of having him wear light brown hush-puppy boots.

I liked Ruth Negga's contemporary Ophelia very much although I'm not too sure of the directorial conceit of having her wheel a shopping trolley around in her mad scenes. It was however a nice touch to have her distribute her character's props badly wrapped-up as gifts to the others during the "Rosemary" scene instead of the usual straggly weeds.

Hytner has added a tiny silent scene after her final scene where Ophelia is snatched by two secret service men and bundled away. I am not sure if the idea of Claudius having Ophelia bumped off actually works - does he suspect her derangement would lead her to betray him? - but it was an interesting touch.

Alex Lanipekun's Laertes was easily swamped by whoever he was playing against but Jake Fairbrother was a very convincing Fortinbras - again sharing his obituary of Hamlet with an embedded tv news team.

It is a tribute to Hytner's direction that the three and a half hours running time slipped by unnoticed and he kept a grip of the narrative throughout. Vicki Mortimer's palatial boxed set swiftly changed from location to location with a particular emphasis on windows and hidden doors and Jon Clark's lighting design also deserves praise.

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