A Prince Among Hamlets

By making Elsinore a modern surveillance state, Hytner’s production has added menace

Anne McElvoy

A prince with no duvet cover: Rory Kinnear as Hamlet

Nicholas Hytner’s Elsinore at the National Theatre is the surveillance state gone mad. It looks like the kind of place high-tech villains inhabit in BBC1’s Spooks, where every air vent conceals a camera and everyone is an informant. Court retainers lurk behind doors on designer Vicki Mortimer’s mock-classical set, while thuggish snoops whisper into the hidden microphones.

This brooding topicality is a mixed blessing. It makes the production feel genuinely menacing: however familiar you are with the great Dane, you somehow wish things would turn out better than we know they will.

It does however bear the curse of reworking Shakespeare to highlight modern political evils, as if Elsinore didn’t have enough of its own to keep us occupied.

Ophelia (played as uppity teen rather than sacrificial lamb by Ruth Negga) is co-opted into secretly recording Hamlet in their final encounter. Why? She’s then murdered by the court goons, evidently at Claudius’s behest. I do think if dear old Shakespeare had wanted Ophelia done away with he’d have written it like that, instead of giving us all that poetry about willow trees.

Fortunately, there is ample compensation in a riveting lead performance. Rory Kinnear gives Hamlet a prince it deserves, not in the style of Daniel Day-Lewis, Jude Law or Ben Wishaw, who all rendered him as slight and neurotically fretful, but as a solid, amiable man, driven into moral isolation at a court where the crown drips with the blood of his father.

Kinnear makes his Hamlet likeable and wills us to share the pain of his impossible situation. He tackles his madness with a knowing wink about his “North by North West” status, fully aware of the social challenge and provocation. Donning tracksuit bottoms and greasy sweatshirt, he lounges on a tattered mattress — a prince with no duvet cover.

Some affectations grate, like smoking a disconsolate cigarette during “To be or not to be”, but Kinnear excels at unforced delivery of the great lines. In “Alas poor Yorick”, he converses naturally with the memory of the jester of “infinite jest and excellent fancy” he had loved as a boy. The play within a play that Hamlet orders to confront Claudius is brilliantly done, a team of actors trembling with nerves at the affront they’re delivering to the King.

Claudius is a part that often under-delivers, but Patrick Malahide glides through it with the mannerisms of the TV-era politician, complete with ready-mix smile. Behind his executive desk in a steel-grey suit, he looks like those dodgy Nordic aristocrats whose family dealings with the Nazis were too close for comfort.

My big doubt is Clare Higgins as Gertrude. She’s trussed into borrowed robes, tight jackets and hip-maximising, old-fashioned pencil skirts, atop leopard-skin heels as tasteless as anything Theresa May ever wore at a Tory conference. She didn’t evoke much of a maternal relationship with her son either, something Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton have brought out in the role. Here’s she’s a nervy, winsome lush, greeting every fresh trouble with a glass in her hand and grabbing at the poisoned champers with gusto.

Polonius (David Calder) steals some scenes as a study in double standards, confronting Ophelia with photographs of herself in assignations with Hamlet. When he counsels ”To thine own self be true”, we see the one moment of regretful insight from a man who has long forgotten how to be true to anything except the hierarchy he serves. No wonder Laertes wanted out.

Ghosts of the past, eradicated by a monstrous central power, and ruled by a Killer Queen: if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, the producers of We Will Rock You, which has run at the Dominion Theatre for nine years and shows no sign of stopping, clearly thought it would serve pretty well for a musical devoted to the memory of Queen. I mean the rock band, not the monarch, though the reverence with which the words “Freddie Mercury” are greeted in these circles is little short of what Claudius would have thought his due.

Oh, what a night. The acreages of the Dominion were jam-packed with coachloads of out-of-towners, teenage boys and serried rows of Russians and Eastern Europeans.

The plot, as my co-critics aged nine and ten observed, is “really rubbish”. A world-dominating corporation has homogenised music so far that only internet downloads are allowed and memories of real rock and roll have been erased. The poor drones are so brainwashed they have even forgotten The X Factor and Britney Spears. What do you mean, when can you go there?

Two plucky Bohemians (Ricardo Afonso and Sarah French) are the Papageno and Papagena of the piece, on a quest to break the spell and find the world’s remaining electric guitar. The Killer Queen (Brenda Edwards) is out to stop them. We get bursts of Mercury and May’s hits belted out fortissimo to hold the slight action together. 

I first heard Bohemian Rhapsody at the age my elder boy is now, and the combination of glam rock laced with Chopin, Mozart and a twirl of the burlesque still works a treat.

It’s hard though to take much of a lecture on keeping rock real from a troupe that adjusted nicely from Bohemian rhapsodists of the 1970s to global supergroup of the late 1980s. Even after Freddie’s death in 1991 (we’re told here he was “wild”, not that he died of Aids), the rest chugged on to grace the (other) Queen’s Jubilee and The X Factor in true pop Establishment style.

No matter: it was ear-splitting fun remembering Fat-Bottomed Girls and convincing ourselves that We Are the Champions, if only for one night.

At the end of the joyous and downright daft shenanigans, a single line appeared on the stage screen: “Do you still want Bohemian Rhapsody“? Two Russian blokes in front of us were so excited they almost forgot to focus on their illegal recording.

“Yeees!” we shrieked. “Oh all right then,” flashed up the reply. So we swayed and ululated along to the oddest, most spell-binding pop song ever written.

If there’s a better instant antidote to our own brooding ghosts, I can’t tell you where to find it. 

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