Hamlet – National Theatre, Olivier

Is Hamlet overload syndrome a recognised theatrical disease? Tennant. Law, Simms, Kinnear and soon to be Sheen all taking on the great Dane. David Tennant may have garned the most column inches, despite missing a large chunk of his London transfer but Rory Kinnear now stakes his claim as one of our leading stage actors.

Hamlet is one of those challenging pieces, you feel the need to do something revelatory to it but go to avent garde and you risk the wrath of traditionalists. Nicholas Hytner’s production goes somewhere in the middle, a modern dress production full of surveillance cameras and militaristic overtones but one that puts the text at its heart.

Overall this works well, the sense of oppression adding to the court tension, but other sections jar. Ophelia as a hip hop toting teenager never convinces for example.

More than any other Shakespeare Hamlet is a show that succeeds or falls on its central character. Rory Kinnear proves to be more up to the task however and gives a defining performance. More thoughtful that the manic Tennant Hamlet, here is a Prince more cerebral in his emotions. Obviously deeply impacted by the death of his father, his is a simmering cauldron of revenge, hurt, adolescent petulance and rage. Each word seems considered and placed for upmost effect; it’s been a long time since we’ve had a Hamlet that annunciates the script so clearly. It’s not a particularly warm or likeable Hamlet but one that is utterly gripping.

Of course Hamlet is more than a monologue, although Kinnear makes fine work of some of the Bard’s finest soliloquies. Patrick Malahide gives an ice cool Claudius, controlling his newly won throne with an icy hand, ably assisted by David Calder’s equally frosty Polonius, happy to eschew family happiness for courtly duty. Clare Higgins is outstanding as Gertrude, battling her divided loyalty to her murdered husband, wayward son and her new husband.

Hyntner’s production may have benefited from some cuts in places and some of the modernity does jar but overall this is a gripping Hamlet. Kinnear can rightly claim the Hamlet crown and will be a hard act to follow for Michael Sheen and future Hamlets.

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