Is Hamlet the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of Theatre? – Hamlet at The National Theatre – Review


Rory Kinnear and Yorick

I LOVE the National Theatre and everything it stands for and I’m a massive supporter of it. I LOVE Shakespeare, he is a genius in the truest sense of the word, with a highly developed sense of humanity. (I also did rather well in my Shakespeare module at college so that warms me to him too!) I LOVE Nicholas Hytner’s directing skills and have enjoyed his previous work tremendously. So I should have been in for a treat last night as I settled down at the National to see Hamlet.

On reading Hamlet for college I had a feeling that this wasn’t a very good play. It’s overlong, turgid in places and seemed to me to be a tad self-indulgent by the Bard. On re-reading it, I still felt this, and on subsequent readings still have that thought. However, as so many seem to think this is the greatest play of all time, I thought I’d hold off my heretical thoughts until I’d seen it visualised on stage, as so often it’s easy to miss something when reading a play text.

Last nights production was “special” in the fact it was filmed live and beamed to 14 different countries and to a large number of UK cinemas as part of the NT Live initiative, which I think is a brilliant idea and I commend the NT for such foresight to be doing this. Before the play we were treated to a 10 min video where Nicholas Hytner and the cast talked about the play and we were shown lots of clips from the rehearsals. In this Nicholas Hytner talked about his vision for setting it in a modern time and in a totalitarian state where “everyone is being watched” just as they were in Elizabethan times. I was intrigued by this and thought – “aha, this could be the thing I’ve not ‘got’ in Hamlet before”. The lights dimmed and off we at the National and the thousands throughout the world went into this vision.

Two hours later, I was pleased the interval had arrived, I was literally numb and desperate to stretch my legs and have a drink. As I looked around, I wasn’t the only person trying to hide the fact that this wasn’t much fun. However most were saying how marvellous it was and how Rory Kinnear was playing Hamlet like this…. but Tennant had done this…Oh and had you seen Jude Law’s? I kept my lips tight, maybe the security cameras on the set were now being trained on us. I dare not be informed on. For the first time EVER in my theatrical experience, I was pondering leaving at half time, could I really put my buttocks through another ninety or so mins? In the interests of this being an important play and that I couldn’t write a review unless I had seen the whole play I returned. Often Act 1 can be a bit slow but Act 2 makes up for it, such as in Women Beware Women. Alas poor Yorick this was not to be.

The end finally arrived and the audience clapped, whooped and a few even stood. I was just pleased it was over and I am considering making watching this an endurance event for the Olympics in 2012.

So what made this such a bad experience??? Firstly I truly believe this isn’t a good play. It’s far too long and needs editing to up the pace. Yes, it does have some WONDERFUL sayings in it that have found their way into our everyday speech. To quote from it, “The play’s the thing”, and this isn’t Shakespeare at his best in my opinion.

The modern setting also was lost on me, this is a “surveillance society” so why don’t any of the numerous guards around the set, ever report what they’re overhearing?? Is no one watching the CCTV cameras? Also it was rather convenient that when Hamlet kills Polonius, there are no guards or cameras watching. If they had it would have saved us about 30 mins of the play.

Shakespearean Product Placement

Was it the cast? Well here’s the rub. I take my hat off to them for doing this demanding play. It truly is a marathon and they deserve to be congratulated. However I have an inkling that the reason Hamlet is touted as “the greatest play ever”, is because it allows the cast and especially whoever is playing Hamlet to be totally self-indulgent for 4 hours. It reminds me of a juggler, musician, dancer or magician who is talented but spends most of their act showing off and entertaining themselves rather than the audience. Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet while accomplished and clever, left me cold. His wearing of a T-shirt with “Villain” written on it seemed a bit shallow and I wasn’t surprised to see them for sale in the foyer, but such “product placement” isn’t necessary. Hamlet is a character with few (if any) traits that help you like him, and I didn’t so perhaps Kinnear did his job, as I couldn’t stand Hamlet. When he asks, “Am I a coward?”, if it wasn’t being filmed I probably would have yelled out “YES!”.

A friend asked if the filming was intrusive and put me off, not at all, the film crew were actually fairly inconspicuous and unnoticeable which is amazing. I’d definitely see a NT Live event at the National again.

So I’m left in a quandary really. I’m not trying to be contrarian or controversial for the sake of it. I just don’t like this play and seeing it, reinforced that, despite me hoping the opposite would occur. This “emperor” of a play certainly has no clothes as far as I’m concerned.


7 thoughts on “Is Hamlet the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of Theatre? – Hamlet at The National Theatre – Review

  1. Oh, where to begin. I love what the NT stands for but dislike the Olivier stage which I find cavernous, except in the hands of new directors who cram it so full of stuff that it can become too cramped. Hytner, of course, knows the contents of his toy box well enough to practice restraint – but I’m just saying.

    I haven’t done the Shakespeare module yet, but my primary reason for taking the BA was to go on to take an MA in Shakespeare Studies, so no prizes for spotting my love for the Bard. I did Hamlet for English A level, and despite having a really bad teacher absolutely loved it, and as I’ve grown older and lived a bit and seen more productions and read it again and again found that it has layer upon layer to keep me coming back.

    Which version did you read, Folio or Quarto? Yes there are bits that are regularly cut these days because they’re no longer topical, which is justifiable, though I found myself mentally re-inserting odd lines that were snipped out of last night’s production for no good reason, because I am that nerd. But, it would never, back in the day, have been produced as a 4 or 5 hour play. Some say that Quarto versions were published to be read (rather than acted) so playwrights could put back all the bits that had been cut (or never appeared) from production, either because they liked those bits or they made reading it easier. Some say that the “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet (worth checking out) is based on the touring version, which would have been shorter than the London version because they used a smaller cast. The problem these days is that people don’t like cuts. The heated arguments that raged after the RSC’s David Tennant production because in sticking to the Folio version (albeit with a few cuts) they didn’t insert from the Quarto “Let be” ran for weeks. 2 words!! Is Shakespeare being self-indulgent? Hamlet the man probably is at times, but I don’t think Shakespeare is – unless you’re thinking of the in-jokes.

    I saw it live round about press night (can’t remember if it was before or after). It’s been on the back burner for about 4 years (Hytner and Kinnear, that is, I don’t know that anyone else was lined up for the cast that early), and I was concerned that knowing it was eventually coming up might have resulted in too long a gestation period and it ultimately being flat or overblown. A bit like John Nettles Ghost / Claudius in Sheffield recently where his years of not doing Shakespeare exploded into a mess of over-acting in the early performances. But that wasn’t the case at the National. There were bits that needed bedding in more, which has now happened, and cuts I don’t like (ahem), and bits that I’d still like to beef up, and things that niggle, but on the whole, I think it’s a pretty good production.

    It did seem to lack pace last night, but I wondered if that was because I was watching it on a screen so wasn’t as immersed as I would be in a theatre – especially as there were a few technical issues – and whether the actors were too aware of the cameras. They never looked directly into a camera, in case you wondered, which was weird from a cinema audience point of view.

    Technically, for about the first half hour we could just about hear the DM’s voice as she ran the book, which was distracting to put it mildly. Of course I was trying to focus my hearing away from her and onto the actors, but there were times when I found myself wondering what she was cueing in because nothing was needed for another couple of minutes. Also the cameras didn’t seem quite up to the job. I was at an arts cinema so the screen was fairly small, but the black or dark areas of the stage looked awful.

    The real downer for me was the loss of intimacy. My seat wasn’t close to the stage when I saw it in London, but – according to a Globe and RSC actor (Jonathan Slinger) – if the actor engages with a member of the audience, not just a fleeting meeting of eyes but directly asks someone a question, the whole audience feels that he is also directly asking them, and that pulls them in. It’s one of the reasons why the RSC often spills light onto the front rows. Staring middle distance won’t work, but if I’m sat at the back and I can see Hamlet asking someone “Am I a coward?” and that someone blushes or giggles or nods, then I feel he’s just asked me too (though I won’t blush, etc). The best you can hope for on film is staring directly into the camera. The best I hoped for last night, it being filmed theatre, was to see the camera show the person (people, as the speech progresses) he was talking to react. But we just had a close up of him looking forwards but not even into the camera, and it was like a steel shutter coming down between me and him. At that point, I knew that the NTLive approach couldn’t work for Shakespeare.

    The modern setting has been done over and over. No-one reported anything because it wasn’t in the script, and Hamlet and Horatio would look around and move closer before talking about the ghost, etc, so as not to be overheard. Polonius was killed in the Queen’s chamber. There wouldn’t have been cameras or guards in there.

    Do you really think he’s a coward? I know it’s a play not real life, but could you kill someone in revenge? Would you not prevaricate, and look for excuses, and question again the “person” who told you of the murder? Look at the alternatives. Laertes comes secretly back to Denmark yet manages to have got a rabble army of followers prepared to follow him if he kills Claudius. Fortinbras is so bellicose his uncle the king doesn’t even know what he’s up to and has to rein him in when he’s found out. And before Claudius confirms his guilt – are were really trusting of the ghost anyway? Hamlet’s studying at Wittenburg, where Martin Luther’s all the rage. The Ghost is in Catholic Purgatory (and we’re back in Elizabethan England where London’s run by Puritans). How do you square that?

    I have, though, for years thought that given the choice of the 2 plays, most women would opt for Hamlet and most men for Macbeth. I’ve also always felt – even at 16 when I first read it – that if I don’t both want to sleep with him and mother him, there’s something wrong with the production. And I do mean the character, not the numerous actors I’ve seen in the role.

    And a final note, and something I’d not thought of but which made complete sense as soon as I heard it, Michael Boyd said, after directing the Histories, that Hal / Henry V is a prototype for Hamlet. Hamlet was written about a year after Henry V, and if you think about the theme of power that ran through the history plays, of course he’s right.

    I’m sorry to have mixed up my thoughts on the play (I could go on for hours), the production, and the experience of watching it on screen, but I don’t have time to untangle it all. If you want a similarly modern production that I think works very well on DVD, I’d suggest the RSC’s David Tennant production. Peter Brook’s sparse production with Adrian Lester comes in at just over 2 hours (I only saw the French production live so wasn’t up to filling in all the gaps!) and is excellent. And finally, I can hardly contain my excitement at next Summer’s RSC production of Macbeth with Jonathan Slinger in the lead role and directed by Michael Boyd. It will eventually transfer to The Roundhouse, I’m sure, with their new 5 year deal, but I’ll be seeing it over and over at Stratford. Now there’s an actor who would give a very interesting Hamlet indeed.

  2. Hi Anna,

    firstly thanks for the comprehensive and brilliant comments!

    I too agree that the Olivier is a space that is wonderful for some productions but also totally unsuitable for others. I was listening to a podcast where Peter Hall was talking about his upcoming production at the National of Twelfth Night and how he’d insisted on not doing it in the Olivier as he feels a smaller and slightly claustrophobic feeling is required for Shakespeare. I certainly felt this production was “rattling around” inside this space. The set didn’t make use of the height of the stage which I think certainly helped create a detachment between the audience and the actors.

    It’s wonderful to hear your views as someone that was in a cinema. WE had two large plasma screens either side of the stage that were showing us what you were seeing. I thought they were cutting between actors far too much and agree the set didn’t look too good on the screen. As mentioned above though, it wasn’t a brilliant set in my mind either though.

    As for why the informants didn’t inform, you hit the point exactly, they don’t because it’s not in the script, so it was pointless having them there I felt!

    As for Henry being a prototype of Hamlet, I get what you’re saying, but I prefer Henry any day.

    I’m fascinated by your comment about Macbeth being a male play and Hamlet a female one, this is certainly true in my experience and the most reaction to my “Hamlet Hatred” has been from women.

    Jonathan Slinger is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. His portrayal of Richard II is one reason that is my favourite Shakespeare play. I will make a beeline to see him as Macbeth at the Roundhouse as that will be something not to miss! His technique of asking a question of one audience member to involve others, is excellent, and something entertainers have been doing for years – it’s a common technique amongst stand-up comedians for example. I certainly felt we were firmly encased behind our fourth wall in this Hamlet, which I think is not right for Shakespeare.

    If Slinger in the future portrays Hamlet, I’ll certainly force myself to go through the experience again, but few other actors will encourage me to.

    Thanks again Anna, for the points, you’ve certainly made me think.

  3. If you want my opinion, I am not the world’s greatest Hamlet fan, either. I much prefer Macbeth (I don’t know why but I’ve always put Hamlet and Macbeth in opposition with one another)! So when people regard Hamlet as the best of Shakespeare’s plays, I’m not convinced. Having said that, I’ve never seen it on the stage. This is my opinion based on reading it/studying it/the David Tennant TV version. I would like to see it on the stage one day… although maybe not the version you saw, haha. I’m sorry you had such a miserable time! Thanks for the review, anyway. 🙂

  4. I saw it on 16th January at 1.00 pm. in Melbourne Australia. I’m curious to know how ‘live’ it was. The telecast was delayed in the theatre I attended for 15 minutes, although they did allow patrons into the other theatre showing it in the multi-plex at 1.00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Summer time) as advertised.

    It was shown on 15th and 16th here. There was a woman compere burbling away in the body of the theatre, saying that it would be showed in 14 countries live and 4 countries slightly delayed (or something like that). I wonder if Australia was one of the delayed ones.

    So was it only filmed the once? Or was it filmed on 2 consecutive nights? Did they charge you full price? Was it a standard production that just happened to have cameras there, or was it specially advertised as the production that would be filmed?

  5. It was broadcast live in the UK, and given time differences, it makes sense that there was a time delay for some other countries. However, they keep the film and use it for what they call “encore” showings, so what you saw was a recording of a single live performance, and exactly the same as I saw in my local cinema when it was broadcast live.

  6. Pingback: Emperor and Galilean by Henrik Ibsen – The National Theatre – Review « Theatre Thoughts Blog

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