The Prince of Denmark goes to Milton Keynes

National Theatre takes its Hamlet to the provinces.

Milton Keynes makes an oddly appropriate Elsinore. A triumph of top-down town-planning over the human spirit, that annihilates the past, and is now itself showing cracks of wear and tear; walking through it makes for a good preamble to the violent regime change at the heart of Hamlet.

In Nicholas Hytner's production for the National, now on tour, the political landscape to the play is pushed to the fore. The director gives us an Orwellian surveillance state: the inhabitants of Elsinore have their every move monitored and taped by agents who lurk on every corner and flank the ruling Claudius, muttering into their mikes like the lackeys in The West Wing. The décor is vaguely White House: huge sash windows, cream and crested panelled walls, gilt-framed likenesses of Our Dear Leader.

This is the Elizabethan world of Francis Walsingham and his double-dealing spies updated to the media age. Claudius (Patrick Malahide, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Vladimir Putin) gives grinning TV broadcasts to sell policy, friends are deployed to spy on friends, parents on children. In this context Polonius -- a suitably prolix and corpulent David Calder -- is at the heart of the system, producing sexed-up dossiers on his daughter Ophelia and dispatching agents to entrap his son Laertes, all the while gilding such realpolitik with spin; so much spin that he frequently gets lost in his own syntax, staring into the middle distance for prolonged lacunae.

In this politically charged production, even the conquering Action Man Fortinbras seems to gloss events and dispense sound bites as it suits his purpose, broadcasting the dead Hamlet's supposed virtues at the end (see T Blair, "the People's Princess").

Hytner pursues the notion of the totalitarian state to its logical conclusion, and makes boldly explicit references to intimidation and coercion, particularly of the women. Shockingly Ophelia (Ruth Negga) is last seen being hustled out by two apparatchiks, and we re-interpret the suicide as state-sponsored murder. The director also chooses to illustrate some innocuous lines of Claudius with signs of physical violence towards his queen, and possibly of rape. Clare Higgins's Gertrude is quietly revelatory: her very body seems to be under duress, pinned into uniformity as she nigh on erupts out of the regulation corporate suit. The carefully hennaed hair shines with fakery; her mouth is a maw of silent distress.

If, as Orwell says, orthodoxy is unconsciousness, then perhaps Hamlet's is the only conscious voice and madness perhaps the only sane response. His feeble attempts at beating the system are entirely doomed: his petition to leave Elsinore is silently ignored and his puerile chalked graffiti is erased by one of the agents. Rory Kinnear makes a fascinating Dane: his domed brow seems custom-built for princely over-thinking, and it's crested with downy hair like a young chick's, felicitously bringing to mind a juvenile fledgling. This Hamlet is a man-child, who gleefully carries the crowd with his madness act, skipping camply around the stage, posturing and braying like David Walliams.

For all that the show foregrounds the political, this is also a deeply personal, bereaved Hamlet, and we never forget that he is a grieving son. The play's familiar lines can seem worn and smoothed with use -- a road well-tramped -- but Kinnear seems to stumble upon them afresh, and render them raw again. So much so that the man sitting next to me nodded his agreement at frequent intervals, as if to say, "good point".

Perhaps appropriately, considering the play's time-out-of-joint theme, I did spend the last ten minutes inwardly raging at Fortinbras to get on with it. The show clocks in at 3 hours 35 minutes (including interval). This intelligent, meticulous production almost -- but not quite -- makes you forget that Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play.

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage