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.