Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 7 October, 2010

Rory Kinnear has for a little while now been known to theatre aficionados as the finest actor of his generation. All that was needed was a formal coronation, such as his taking on the role of Prince Hamlet. This production has been keenly anticipated for the better part of a year, and Kinnear does not disappoint. The 32-year-old has inherited his late father Roy’s comic talent (in particular that priceless ever-so-slightly-distracted look), but combines it with a thoughtfulness and clarity which give him a much greater range. As Hamlet he can give full rein to his skills – can “sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass”, as he accuses Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of attempting to do.
This is a Hamlet who can play his antic disposition masterfully, yet who is at times genuinely frantic. His first encounter with the ghost leaves him gibbering, inanely drawing a smiley face with the caption “VILLAIN” on the wall (to set it down that one may smile and smile and...), then later he parodies himself by producing a batch of T-shirts with the same image and caption, as merchandise for the players’ performance before the royal court. He can play both registers at once, cursing Claudius in soliloquy as being “no more like my father than I to Hercules” whilst showing his un-Herculeanness by rubbing the hand he has just hurt thumping the king’s desk. He can weigh each word as scrupulously as Simon Russell Beale, but can also be silly with an unselfconsciousness which Beale cannot manage. This is a pearl of a performance.
It is, however, a pearl in an imperfect setting. One thinks, perhaps a little unfairly, of modern militarism as being Nicholas Hytner’s standard Shakespearean mode, but it is the case here, more or less. Much of the brooding armed presence is not strictly military, but rather a phalanx of black-suited, ear-pieced bodyguards-cum-secret policemen. They tone in well beneath Patrick Malahide’s Putinesque Claudius, and shockingly even seem to murder Ophelia, but their ubiquity makes little or no sense. So they’re all over the place yet don’t report all these private remarks that they obviously hear? Or, just as stupidly, they’re always present for protection but then have to leave so that a soliloquy can be plausibly delivered?
Clare Higgins suggests a troubled hinterland to Gertrude: certainly she and Kinnear’s Hamlet are continents away from the standard loving mother/son relationship portrayed in those roles, and she may even have been complicit in the old king’s murder. Ruth Negga’s Ophelia is credible when sane but her madness is badly over the top, especially burdened as she is by Hytner with a wire shopping trolley. David Calder’s Polonius, on press night, was less bumbling than rasping due to a sudden onset of laryngitis. Kinnear’s is one of the finest handful of Hamlets I have seen, but at the risk of sounding superannuated and reactionary, the production is simply too gimmicky.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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