A fighter plane roars overhead. Lights come up on a bleak black-and-white Elsinore Castle. Soldiers in camouflage strike the familiar high-shouldered automatic rifle-toting power-pose so beloved of army recruitment ads, sorry, TV & movies. Who needs a bare bodkin when a Bullpup SA80 can do the job?
Two youths — Hamlet and Laertes — lose their fathers and seek revenge, leading to much blood-letting and misery all round. The plot is familiar but director Nicholas Hytner tries to find a modern spin for his first-ever bite at the great Dane.
Hytner chooses a modern militarised setting with new king of the castle, Hamlet's Uncle Claudius, ruling by way of a surveillance society, and bumbling old Polonius actually a Walsinghamesque head of the secret service. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, possibly the whiff of testosterone permeating the masculine iconography. Armed spooks in snappy suits and earpieces lurk like club bouncers, while soldiers in trousers at half-mast over sexy high-laced bovver boots are on call at the flick of a switch to coked-up banging techno.
No wonder poor sensitive Hamlet is driven half mad.
When his father's ghost (James Laurenson) tells his son that his Uncle Claudius (Patrick Malahide) is both regicide and fratricide as well as schtupping his dipso mother, tough-as-old-boots Queen Gertrude (Clare Higgins), Hamlet, recently-bereaved Prince of Denmark, is galvanised into inaction. Should he take arms against a sea of troubles or smoke a fag?
It's a mark of any good Shakespeare production that the audience can understand words from another age requiring a different register of thought, and Hytner's Hamlet is excellent on this score. Marred only by appalling sound at the beginning (the actors are all mic'ed up), and vastly improved by sneaking into the empty balcony seats further towards the middle of the Olivier auditorium where the acoustics thrive, the text is delivered with full clarity and meaning.
Rory Kinnear earns all the plaudits he's been getting. Looking well for his age, this star of the NT repertory company gets away with everything except murder. Playing two modes — loony and ultra-sane — he uses his feigned madness to outwit an entire oppressive regime. Although you have to ask if this was the status quo way before Claudius's promotion, implicating Hamlet senior in the creation of this grim world, and makes you wonder if he got what he deserved.
Hamlet's quicksilver backchat is matched by leaping and gambolling, running rings around his antagonists in every way. But if he's so smart, why can't he restore nature's equilibrium, right wrongs and correct an off-kilter world? Lacking the nerve to self-slaughter, he must marshall his internal forces to wreak revenge and lay ghosts to rest ... at least in the outside world, if not in his own mind.
There's a satisfying amount of "business" — the stuff not in the text — discovered in the creative process as well as thrust into play by the director, who will have been wrestling with his production for months if not years. In conversation with the stolid Polonius, Hamlet transforms an open book into a bird as his thoughts fly away apparently unanchored to terra firma. His smiley-face Watchmen graffito becomes a symbol of defiance, the gormless mask he is able to slip on to facilitate his deceit. When Ophelia (Rugh Negga) wears the smiley T-shirt you know she too is caught up in the game: in this version, the power-play of her puppeteer father. Ophelia, whose madness Ruth Negga strains for but never quite grasps, comes to her watery end by an unexpected means that feels a bit forced.
The choreography for Hamlet's play-within-a-play which will unmask his father's killer is brilliant and the scene becomes a vital building block in the story rather than a tacked-on addendum. The star of the show for me is James Laurenson who stood out as the deceased King and Player King, possessing the sort of charisma you just don't get any more.
These positives aside: if each Hamlet reflects each age, then what is the National Theatre's production telling us about ourselves?
The bouncer/squaddie trope is cringingly patronising to the National Theatre audience — although Team Hamlet is probably banking on approval when it tours the provinces from next month — and a sense of pandering to an audience brought up on the stale TV imagery of media, muscle and sex. Is this all we can understand? Each time another camera crew came on to capture the moment I wanted to reach for my AK47.
A deeply conservative vision runs through this production: the air of an etiolated middle-class establishment appropriating imagery of working-class males serving the ruling class as its bully-boys, rather than challenging the power structure. It may be a comment on the creeping authoritarianism of successive governments, but it ultimately communicates a pessimistic view of our society's potential while keeping usurpers of power in the driving seat.
Fascism wins out when the hippy Prince dies, embodied curiously in the shaven head of Fortinbras as revealed in a news bulletin tableau when he surveys the carnage at the end. My Lovely Companion noted a visual reference to the paratrooper in Pontecorvo's Battle Of Algiers. No time for grand thoughts and grooming here. The shaven male head becomes a symbol of raw male power, the jettisoning of sentiment and human tenderness for the great smell of brute function, the quality required to survive in the world. This scene comes perilously close to celebrating military restoration of order: it's a dirty job but someone has to do it.
By William Shakespeare
Starring Rory Kinnear
Director: Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre ends this week.
National tour from 11th February 2011: Nottingham Theatre Royal; Salford Lowry; Plymouth Theatre Royal; Milton Keynes; Woking; Luxembourg