Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Film review: National Theatre's Hamlet

Frances Dharmalingham, our president, saw this film recently in Perth. Here's her report:

I have lost count of the number of Hamlets I have seen and enjoyed, but the 2010 National Theatre production, screened last weekend, was one of the very best.

An interview with the director, Nicholas Hytner, preceded the performance.  He mentioned the totalitarian regime of Elizabeth I in which her spymaster, Walsingham, kept control through a pervasive spy network, and he then pursued the idea with reference to modern all-embracing surveillance techniques.  This theme was clear in the production, with security guards, walkie-talkies, cameras and shadowy figures half-seen by open doors or through murky windows:  throughout, a sense was established that speakers might at any time be overheard and reported to their disadvantage.

The play began with the almost unbearably loud sound of a jet plane taking off and flying away into the distance, a sound which punctuated the performance.  It was surprisingly threatening, serving to underline the fact that Denmark was on a war footing and this was further strengthened immediately with the midnight scenes on the battlements – so cold, so nervy, awaiting the arrival of an inexplicable phenomenon.

The ghost’s entrance was quiet, difficult to see.  At times the clever lighting made him appear almost transparent.  There were no melodramatic sound effects, no sepulchral echo, none of the usual 'ghostly' details.  This was a dead king who felt great anger and hurt not only at what had been done to him, but also because the crime was unrecognised and the perpetrator unpunished.  He spoke with complete realism and it was therefore the more believable that Hamlet should accept the whole incident as real. (Although, of course, he questions it in retrospect.)

Rory Kinnear in rehearsals for Hamlet at the National Photograph: Johan Persson
Hamlet was played by Rory Kinnear, whose powerful Iago I had seen only recently.  It is hard to imagine two characters more different, so I was looking forward to seeing his interpretation.  Hamlet seemed to me a terribly unhappy young man, not given the chance to mourn his dead father, feeling manipulated and not seriously respected at court, and verging dangerously close to clinical depression by the time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived.  The soliloquies were truly Hamlet’s thoughts.  We could see them working in his face, and the words, although perfectly audible, seemed almost projected from his mind to ours.  Kinnear’s technical virtuosity was admirable, but never intrusive.

All the characters were interesting and plausible.  Polonius, for example, was not the usual senile dodderer who would long since have been pensioned off.  He was of course annoyingly verbose, but still an experienced senior official.  Just occasionally he came to an abrupt halt, lost the track and floundered for a moment suggesting perhaps the onset of age-related dementia, which was far more believable than the sort of ‘lean and slippered pantaloon’ often portrayed.  The comedy inherent in his early scenes was gently brought out too.

Claudius really was a smiling villain, a full-time politician always aware of the media and his audience.  This was particularly emphasised in his soliloquy after the play, in which he tries to balance remorse for his crime with retaining the benefits of the crime.  I had always viewed this speech as the one time Claudius was sincerely wrestling with his conscience, but this Claudius had no conscience, apparently.  His words were rather like a rehearsal; there was an imagined audience, almost an imagined microphone and camera, as if he could not break the habits of a lifetime, and when he knelt to pray one knew very well that his attempt could not possibly succeed.

Gertrude was a middle-aged sexpot – very curvaceous, wearing clothes just too tight for good taste and a hair- style just a little too unkempt for the wife of a national leader.  The strain of events began to show as she drank increasingly recklessly, and this culminated in a clever touch of insolence as she defied Claudius and drank from the poisoned goblet.  Her great scene attempting to upbraid her son was remarkable for the extremes of mood displayed by both characters, from desperate sadness, to anger, to horror, and finally an extraordinary burst of hysterical laughter, quickly supressed, as Hamlet joked while dragging out Polonius’ body.

It was interesting to note that the visiting players really did take note of Hamlet’s instructions.  After the stylised, balletic dumb-show, The Mousetrap was performed without histrionics, simple and realistic.

Laertes’ attempted rebellion and the rapid movement of events to the finale proceeded with admirable clarity, though Laertes himself was less impressive than one might have wished.  His voice was hoarse and speech not always clear, suggesting that perhaps he had a cold, obviously a problem when a live performance is filmed.  However, he acquitted himself well in the final duel, which was staged quite simply but, after the unexpected cut, with convincing ferocity.

It must be difficult when speeches are very well-known for an actor to avoid triteness, but Horatio spoke his farewell lines to Hamlet with such natural sincerity as to be genuinely moving.  The arrival of Fortinbras and the English ambassadors could have been an anti-climax after such strong emotion but they served to bring the action to a dignified and respectful conclusion.  As the lights dimmed we heard, appropriately, the last jet plane take off and fly away, fading to silence.

The whole performance was marked by very fine acting and meticulous attention to the text, down to the subtlest nuance.  There was of course plenty of action, and it always arose from the text -- no distracting extraneous flamboyance; no leaping from balconies during the duel; no carrying the corpse cruciform and shoulder-high, even though we knew the body would be borne to the stage later.  Even Polonius and Claudius were dispatched with the minimum of fuss, but absolutely in accordance with the script.  The actors' intensity created for the audience a real sense of what Aristotle must have meant by catharsis.  An added bonus is that such a minute examination of such a well-known play leaves me with so many details to ponder for a long time.