Hamlet. One of Shakespeare’s most renowned and powerful tragedies; complex explorations of themes such as power, mental indecision, incest, treachery and misogyny. Did the National Theatre create a refreshing and engaging production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies? Not quite.
I arrived at the Theatre Royal with high expectations of the National Theatre’s Hamlet, a production that received a 5-star review from The Times. Admittedly, I should not have let this horizon of expectation cloud my thoughts. In the opening scene, the spotlight focused in on Francisco (the officer on watch outside Elsinore Castle) with the rest of the stage hidden in shadow, and an ominous mist and musical drone created a surreal, haunting atmosphere. The ensuing action between the guards as they encountered the ghost of Old Hamlet was very powerful and convincing, with James Laurenson (Old Hamlet) holding a gaze so intense that I could almost feel his eyes on me; adeptly communicating to the terrified officers and the audience that he had something important to disclose. This made for a great first impression, but one that was soon to be altered by the following scenes.
The stark difference in costume design in the next scene was immediately confusing. In the former scene, the night guards were dressed in what appeared to be Clay Pigeon Shooting attire from the 1940s, yet when the action moved to the inside of Elsinore, everyone was dressed in contemporary business suits. This threw me for a little while as I could not work out what period this adaptation was meant to be set in, which caused me to become distracted and fail to fully engage with the action. Perhaps this was done purposefully to emphasise the perennial importance of Shakespeare’s characters’ human condition, spanning all time periods, but I felt that this was more of a design fault because there was not enough costume blending from two time-periods overall.
Unlike the costumes, the set design was fantastically simple. Flats with Colonial-style furnishings dominated the stage and were angled to create varying depths and spaces for the numerous rooms in the believably grand castle. Also embellishing the set was the constant presence of security guards dressed in black suits with earpieces and guns tucked into their belts. While these guards took part in some of the action shared amongst the main characters, they ultimately became a part of the set, moving the flats/props and giving a sense of Elsinore’s residents being under constant surveillance. While it began as an interesting comment on the monitoring of our everyday lives in the 21st century, the concept failed to develop and I grew tired of watching robotic men walk about, whispering into mouthpieces and generally distracting me.
One of the most engaging aspects, however, was the Player’s performance of the silent ‘dumbshow’ to Claudius and his court. This was performed using mime and it was the most impressive part of the whole production because it crudely illustrated the magnitude of Claudius’ sin via the mime artists’ melodramatic sexual movements and violent poisoning of the Player King.
Conversely, the majority of the acting in the production overall was quite disappointing. Rory Kinnear (Hamlet) and was one of the only really impressive actors, showing an acute understanding of Hamlet’s character. Clare Higgins (Gertrude) and Ruth Negga (Ophelia) completely over-acted their roles and were at times painful to watch. This as well as the rushing of lines meant that it was very difficult to believe in the characters and I thus failed to empathise with the ongoing action. In the final scene, the tragedy of the entire play was hindered by Higgins’ false wails and pathetic stumbling around the stage (to name but a few embarrassing moments) and ultimately I felt more like laughing than crying at the end of one of Shakespeare’s most potent tragedies.
While the set design was ingenious and some of the acting brilliant, the general level of only average acting and the production’s unsuccessful attempts at creating effective, underlying contemporary political comments resulted in me only half enjoying the performance and feeling quite disengaged throughout.