From Mercury to Saturn

Hamlet, Olivier Theatre, 8 October 2010

Sticking to a familiar pattern, the opening scene of the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet looked like a rehash of many that had gone before. The set, which comprised a series of windowed walls topped by security cameras, descended into smoky darkness; the guards slowly appeared, turning and warily pointing their modern rifles as if expecting ambush at any moment; and then the first lines barked out. There seems to be little scope nowadays for novelty in the staging of the play’s initial moments and this sameness was slightly dispiriting.

The ghost appeared and offered a glimmer of hope. I was struck by how unwarlike he looked. Instead of a martial gait and military uniform, his presence was gentle and calm and exuded an air of compassion as if his mission back in the realm of the living was bountiful instead of revengeful.

The scene, like the rest of the play, was shorn of its more obscure language and classical references so that once the ghost had finally disappeared and those present decided on informing young Hamlet of the apparition, the production had shown itself to be thoroughly modern and accessible, but at the same time quite predictable.

What ensued, as we moved into 1.2, was so novel and unfamiliar that it produced in me something close to euphoria as the production’s gloriously original constellation of features collided with my soured expectations. Like the best present you’ve ever had coming wrapped in plain, brown paper.

The lights brightened and the sections of wall rearranged themselves to produce a palace interior with a large desk within an office area stage left and chairs of state stage right. Security men in suits and earpieces monitored in the background as the royal party entered and the inner world of Elsinore was opened up.

Claudius in a dark formal suit sat on his chair of state next to Gertrude who smiled gracefully as her husband’s first words were spoken as a live broadcast being captured by a small television crew in front of them. On a stand just behind them loomed the portrait of the recently deceased Old Hamlet draped in funereal black. The television address ended with “For all, our thanks” after which his words about Fortinbras were spoken only to those present.

Media-savvy machine

This Claudius was a modern, media-savvy, machine politician who seemed hurried and determined but also emotionally detached even from the business of state. He could not be described as a megalomaniac as that would have been a point of interest in his character. He was unpleasant but also incredibly dull.

Gertrude seemed to exist in his shadow as a subordinate. Her dress was formal but unglamorous, which seemed to express her lack of confidence in herself.

As Claudius moved over to his desk to attend to business of state, his hurried and efficient manner, his whining monotone voice, together with the modern dress of the entire cast did more to create a sense of unease than did the trappings of modern technology and surveillance.

Period costume reduces the menace exuded by Machiavels because anchoring such characters and their deeds in the past creates for the audience a comforting dislocation from any immediate concerns. Modern dress forges an immediate connection between the action on stage and the very familiar horrors of our own age: this Claudius reminded us of people whom we have actually known and personally resented.

All this while, Hamlet had sat on a chair patiently waiting his turn to attract the new king’s attention. In this bureaucratic world the permission he needed to leave Denmark and return to Wittenberg was a form requiring the king’s signature. Nervously grasping the paper before him, Hamlet stood in front of the king’s desk and silently proffered it.

The king’s reaction was remarkable. He looked round the side of Hamlet as if he were nothing more than an unwelcome obstruction and addressed himself to Laertes. Taking this none too subtle hint, Hamlet withdrew.

Polonius was drawn into this conversation. He was bumbling but not avuncular, seemingly infected with the same virus of machine politics as his new master.

Only after signing Laertes’ pass to leave Denmark did Claudius condescend to acknowledge Hamlet’s presence. This made his use of the word ‘son’ all the more galling and Hamlet’s indignant response, its initial one line and subsequent extended speech, all the more justified. We did not have to imagine the back story to the tension at this moment: we had seen it played out before us.

As Claudius finished setting out of his reasons for refusing his stepson permission to leave and a nervous Gertrude backed him up, Hamlet stood stage right facing away from him, tore the paper to shreds and threw them out into the audience. He was bitter and angry in his avowal of obedience to his mother. Claudius’ characterisation of this concession of defeat as “a loving and a fair reply” and a “gentle and unforced accord” with the scattered pieces of paper still littering the floor of the auditorium, was breathtakingly arrogant. His effortless rewriting of the immediate past in direct contradiction of the facts underlined his absolute power.

Hamlet’s first exchanges with his family followed by his lengthy soliloquy defined the character at the heart of the production. With the initial action creating a clear political context for his character, Hamlet’s situation appeared to be not so much a personal, family drama but rather the struggle of a decent person against powerful, impersonal forces.

Saturn, not Mercury

Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet had none of the fire, agility and action hero energy of David Tennant in the 2008 RSC production. Still images of Tennant from that Hamlet captured facial expressions and poses that unmistakably conveyed the dynamism of his stage presence. But whereas Tennant had seemed like a bright spark of mercurial force cheated of victory by events, Kinnear presented a saturnine Hamlet who appeared at first only dimly aware of his potential. It was as if he was in the midst of a confused search for himself.

His absolute lack of action hero status was underlined as he thumped Claudius’ desk with his fist only to withdraw it and shake it in pain as he said how much he was unlike Hercules.

He spoke with calm dignity in clearly enunciated tones. Character was not indicated by a display of exuberant physical actions; it could only be discerned by paying close attention to his words and their precise delivery.

Instead of having a character presented to us with unmistakable force, we were instead obliged to scrutinise and investigate a subtle stage presence that proved all the more fascinating for consisting of small-scale detail. It was like monitoring the slow development of a photographic print in a darkroom, and not the sudden projection of a bold, complete image.

After hearing about the ghost from Horatio and the others, there was an intelligent cut in Hamlet’s lines so that he did not mention his father’s spirit being “in arms”.

Ophelia was to prove as interesting a personality as Hamlet. Music pounded out at the start of 1.3 as the scene changed to a domestic interior with the young woman lounging on a sofa with a portable stereo by her feet. She looked thoroughly contemporary and this helped her to appear as a real person and not the cliché of simplistic innocence that can often be evoked by flighty Ophelias in white dresses.

The realism of her character was shown again as both she and her brother Laertes giggled their way through Polonius’ dry, humourless lecture on comportment, which he delivered after conferring his blessing (a wad of cash) on his son. The fact that he continued talking while being visibly mocked made him unsympathetic as it indicated a lack of awareness of how his words were being received. Like Claudius his master, Polonius seemed to plough on regardless of the reactions of others.

Hamlet’s reunion with his dead father was preceded by a comic moment in which the ghost hunters were spooked by the sudden noise of fireworks from Claudius’ party, causing them to jump. When the ghost did eventually turn up, he appeared behind Hamlet’s back as he talked to Horatio. Hamlet sensed that his companion had seen something and he turned catching sight of his father in an instant. The shock made him cross himself and fall to his knees.

The two of them looked like kindred spirits. The good nature and intelligence of the ghost were clearly characteristics that had been passed on to his son.

Seeing the ghost of Old Hamlet and his son together underlined how effective it was not to have doubled the roles of the ghost and Claudius. Having two actors playing these roles enabled a stark contrast to be drawn between them, highlighting the damaging effects of the new order at Elsinore. It also meant that Claudius’ disdain for Hamlet could be contrasted with Old Hamlet’s compassion and gentleness.

Smiley culture

On hearing the truth about the murder of his father, Hamlet found himself inspired. But his first action, his setting down of this recent lesson in his ‘tables’, was to chalk a smiley on the wall and write ‘VILLAIN’ in large capitals underneath. This was a surprisingly juvenile reaction which contrasted with the intelligent maturity of his deportment thus far in the play. As a gesture, it was a harbinger of things to come.

When his companions caught up with him he made them swear by his hand rather than his sword, which was consistent with the modern setting. He also talked to Horatio of ‘our philosophy’ rather than ‘your’.

After thoroughly boring Reynaldo with his tedious instructions and having heard from a frightened Ophelia about Hamlet’s odd behaviour, Polonius was soon explaining all to Claudius and Gertrude, who had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ready to spy on their son.

Again there was nothing funny or avuncular about Polonius’ rambling speech on the source of Hamlet’s madness. Whereas some productions make him an endearing buffoon whose death feels like a loss, this Polonius was a senescent copy of Claudius for whom it was difficult to arouse fellow feeling.

There was also a sense that Polonius was embarrassed that his daughter was the root of Hamlet’s problems and that he was consequently concerned whether this would have repercussions for his position at court, which made him defensive.

Hamlet appeared outside a window making mad noises and flapping an open book as if it were a bird. There was something of Anne the psychiatric patient character from Little Britain in his utterances, which was comical.

Rather than privacy being achieved by the king and queen withdrawing, the entire scene then changed from a large court chamber to Hamlet’s own bedroom to which Polonius gained entry.

A squalid mattress lay on the ground covered in tatty sheets and a blanket next to which stood a large trunk surrounded by books. As Polonius questioned him, Hamlet gradually climbed into and curled up inside the trunk, which was too small to accommodate him. He clutched a book, gazing at it intently. The first words in his answers were often mumbled in a childish, distracted voice only to become clearer when repeated: this happened with “words, words, words” and “except my life, except my life”.

These were further examples of the juvenile behaviour first glimpsed when Hamlet chalked the smiley on the wall. When he crept into the trunk and curled up with his book he was adopting a foetal position.

This regression to childishness seemed to be a reaction to the lack of power he felt in the face of the overwhelming forces ranged against him.

Polonius left the room to be replaced by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at which point an interesting reversal took place. When challenging his friends about whether they had been sent for, the childish regressive Hamlet suddenly found some inner steel and began for the first time to show the ability to dominate a social situation.

He smoked nonchalantly and appeared quite pleased to have won a minor victory. When describing his disaffection with the “stale promontory” of the earth he struck a dramatic pose looking out of the window. Polonius knocked and re-entered, at which point Hamlet got down on the ground and crawled resuming his previous childish behaviour.

The Only Men

Polonius read from a flyer that the newly arrived players were the best actors for ‘tragedy, comedy’ and so on, becoming more perplexed as the list went on. He made it sound as if he was quoting the name of group when he said “These are The Only Men”. Polonius’ recommendation did not sound like something arising from his own direct experience, but rather second-hand information. This in turn made him less sympathetic as a character, because modern theatre in this production was characterised as a good thing in a bad world. Making Polonius unfamiliar with the latest theatre placed him outside this realm of virtue.

The enclosed room then opened up to the full stage as the players entered with their equipment cases, lighting rigs and control desks. They appeared a very likeable group of people whose relaxed presence was a deep contrast to the besuited power mongers of the court. Hamlet seemed to come alive in the presence of these people.

The role of the ghost and the 1st player were doubled, which created the spectacle of Hamlet sharing a performance of the Pyrrhus play with his ‘father’. Having established the theatre as a locus of virtue, it became doubly significant that the ghost/1st player was a part of this world. It established a connection between the father he had lost and the world of the theatre in which he felt at home.

The friction between court power and the theatre company was indicated subtly at the end of this sequence. As Hamlet asked the 1st player to insert lines into The Murder of Gonzago, one of the omnipresent security goons stepped forward to spy on their conversation as if sensing the onset of conspiracy.

Left alone, Hamlet sat by the lighting desk and threw a switch that turned on a light that shone directly on him as he began the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. This was a nice touch: he was literally and metaphorically turning a probing light on himself.

The start of act three saw the royal party gathered in a corridor. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exited, Polonius handed Ophelia a Bible that concealed a microphone. He indicated that she should clasp it in front of her so that her conversation with Hamlet would be picked up clearly and transmitted to the earpieces that he and the king would be wearing concealed nearby. She hid out of the way as Hamlet entered.

Hamlet shuffled in looking dishevelled with one hand in his pocket and the other clasping a cigarette to deliver the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. This was a good effort at providing some novelty at a moment that is so familiar within the play and culture generally.

But the modernity of the production’s setting and its emphasis on power meant that the personal and metaphysical aspects of this speech were de-emphasised. Rather than an iconic portrait of man pondering his place in the universe, this Hamlet was a spied upon dissident whose problems were very tangible.

As he heard the noise of Ophelia’s entry, he said “Soft…” and after a pause continued “You now!” having recognised her. In his argument with Ophelia he soon suspected he was being monitored. When he asked her where her father was, she snatched the bugged Bible from in front of her and hid it behind her back, her meek reply to his question indicating feelings of guilt. Hamlet then closed the shutters on the windows in what was a futile, token gesture: if he realised his conversation was being overheard then closing shutters would be no solution.

Players and villains

The set opened out again for the performance of the play. Chairs of state were provided for Claudius and Gertrude while cushions were scattered round the edge of the performance space for the others. Hamlet and the players were wearing t-shirts with the 🙂 VILLAIN design on the front. He addressed the “speak the speech” lines to an actress who looked quite annoyed at having her technique criticised.

Hamlet reacted to Gertrude’s request to sit by her by dropping his trousers and acting disturbed. Once again he regressed into a display of juvenile behaviour, which although an act, must have derived to some extent from a grain of truth within him.

He mocked Ophelia with his “country matters” remark rather than cosying up to her. She looked angrily at him and they scuffled with each other. It was obvious that their falling out was still a live issue and that Hamlet still felt a sense of betrayal at her connivance in the bugging. Instead of sitting by her, he wandered around the edge of the space, loitering in particular near the king and queen when making pointed remarks about the plot of the play.

Seen in the light of his other juvenile behaviour, his choice of weapon against the king, disguised satire, began to look like another form of repressed aggression. His graffiti on the wall (now a fashion on t-shirts), feigned madness, trouser dropping, sarcasm and satire formed a consistent set of blunted and immature responses to a threat against which he had no response of equivalent power.

The dumb show was acted in an energetic and rhythmic style to pumping music. However, the real impact came when the 1st player assumed the role of Hamlet’s father and we effectively saw him come back to life for the re-enactment of his murder. The ghost had appeared quite artistic and intellectual, characteristics shared by the 1st player, and this prompted the idea that perhaps Hamlet had derived his love of theatre from his father.

As Lucianus poured the poison into the player king’s ear, Hamlet operated a spotlight and shone it on the scene of the murder, then tracked the light upwards so that it illuminated only Claudius. This was the same spotlight that he had turned on himself earlier for the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy and whose probing beam was now directed at his usurping uncle.

The king’s demand for “lights” made real sense because general lighting eliminated the focus of the spotlight on himself, which was another point at which lighting worked metaphorically.

The players were escorted out of the room by security goons as if under arrest, reminding us that this was very much a world where political gestures could have unpleasant consequences. But Hamlet had achieved a victory of sorts: he knelt downstage and referred to Claudius as the “stricken deer” as the first half of the performance came to an end.


The second half began with Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio. He confronted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with even greater assurance than he had shown in his previous dealings with them. Hamlet then talked to Polonius in his mannered childish voice, teasing him about the shapes of clouds.

Claudius sat behind his desk and addressed himself to the audience for his “O, my offence is rank” speech. He rattled out the words mechanically in his whining voice without any feeling being put into them. At “Try what repentance can” he moved to the other side of his desk and knelt facing the large portrait of himself hanging on the wall behind the desk. This was a neat visual encapsulation of Claudius’ self-centred nature. Hamlet considered killing his uncle at this moment with the same calm reflection that he had applied to other situations in the play. He flexed his switch blade but let Claudius live.

Another rearrangement of the walls brought us to Gertrude’s chamber, which was furnished with a sofa, not her bedroom as is often the case when this scene is staged. Polonius was hidden behind a curtain in an alcove and on hearing a noise from there, Hamlet stabbed him. The old man fell forwards clutching his neck.

Polonius’ death was a shock, but his unsympathetic nature meant that this did not feel like a great loss or injustice as can sometimes occur with a genial Polonius.

The affection Hamlet still felt for his father became apparent during his argument with Gertrude. His words were reinforced by the staging. When comparing the “counterfeit presentment” of the two brothers, he took Claudius’ portrait down from the wall and placed over it a small photo of his father which he retrieved from a fold in his wallet, the traditional location for photos of loved ones.

Despite having appeared in the first scene of the play, the ghost’s ethereal presence in Gertrude’s room looked like an anachronism from a gothic novel, somewhat at odds with the modern, hi-tech feel of the rest of the production.

True to his character, Claudius did not change his mood on taking account of Hamlet’s descent in murderousness. His armed guards pursued his nephew, finding him perched on top of a stage tower caught in the light of their torches. Hamlet’s resistance to his uncle’s interrogation about the location of Polonius’ body lasted until a case containing instruments of torture was shown to him, after which he pointed them in the direction of the lobby.

After a whirl of helicopter noises, Hamlet had his conversation with the Norwegian captain while attached with a single plastic handcuff to a drainpipe indicating his captive state before being transported to England.

Our first glimpse of Ophelia’s madness after her father’s death was touching and convincing. Some Ophelias dance around at this point striking balletic poses exuding exaggerated poetic melancholy. But Ruth Negga acted like someone genuinely disturbed. Her songs resulted from her singing along to music playing on her portable stereo. She took off her top and jigged around in her bra thrusting herself on Gertrude singing the line “By Cock they are to blame”.

Gunfire announced the return of Laertes and his followers as they mounted what was effectively an insurgent coup, confronting the king with modern weapons. No sooner was Laertes assuaged than his sister re-entered.

Supermarket sweep

Ophelia wheeled in a shopping trolley full of stuff with a photo of her dead father stuck to the front. She removed it and examined it lovingly and took a number of packages from the trolley and set them out in a row on the ground. These gifts that she distributed to those in the room were referred to as various flowers. This was a neat variation: she is so mad that she imagines junk to be flowers.

The gift she handed to the king was the prop poison bottle from the Mousetrap. Was this an innocent gesture resulting from her distraction? Or had she worked out the truth and now knew of the king’s role in Old Hamlet’s death?

Whatever the reason, at the end of her mad display she was bundled away quite violently by the security men in a clear indication that the fate about to befall her was no accident. Ophelia was going to be murdered to ensure her silence.

With Horatio up to speed on Hamlet’s return, and Laertes’ captive followers marched away at gunpoint, the king and Laertes, prompted by the letter announcing his arrival, discussed and agreed on their plan to kill Hamlet.

The queen interrupted them with the news of Ophelia’s death. She had an understandably pained expression on her face. But what was the precise source of this emotional pain?

Normally this speech is a moment of poetry amid general scenes of plotting and mayhem, very much a chance for the audience to enjoy some light relief and picture the scene in their minds using Millais’ painting as a template.

But given that Ophelia had in all likelihood been murdered on Claudius’ orders, Gertrude’s long, detailed account of the girl’s drowning was cast into a completely different and more sinister light. How could anyone know that much about the precise sequence of events leading to Ophelia’s death without being there to witness it? And why would any witness to the protracted drowning not intervene to rescue her? It began to look like Gertrude was there under duress to deliver a hastily concocted and transparently false cover story.

Given Gertrude’s affection for Ophelia, this must have been a galling task for her. Her sadness in retelling the story of Ophelia’s death was three-fold: she was in mourning for the girl; full of bitterness at the injustice of the murder; and also in turmoil at her own role as bearer of the official whitewash.

One gravedigger was present at the start of act five so that the comic banter that normally takes place between the two gravediggers was cut. This speeded up the arrival of Horatio accompanied by Hamlet with his cagoule and rucksack.

Hamlet’s contemplation of Yorick’s skull was, like much of the other metaphysical speculation in the play, something outside the main axis of the production. With modern political resonances to the fore, this Hamlet was in a political bind, not in the midst of an existential crisis, nor a family drama. So while this pause for reflection on the transience of life was one of the big moments in the play, it felt like an interlude before the return to the main drama of Hamlet’s personal struggles.

The priest performed Ophelia’s rites in Latin and their brevity caused Laertes to complain. Gertrude’s expressions of regret at Ophelia’s death again took on a different meaning in the light of her possible connivance in Ophelia’s murder. Hamlet and Laertes grappled over the grave.

Hamlet’s account to Horatio of his escape was interrupted by Osric, whom National Theatre regulars would have recognised as Nick Sampson who played Cool the butler in their recent production of London Assurance. The stakes in the fencing wager (rapiers, poignards, carriages etc.) were cut to avoid anachronism. It also seemed that some of Hamlet’s sarcastic comments to Osric were also cut.

A proper piste was rolled out diagonally across the stage in preparation for the fencing and both Hamlet and Laertes wore appropriate clothing and masks. Claudius and Gertrude watched from their chairs of state between which was a small table bearing a glass of wine into which Claudius had put the pearl and poison.

After the apparent (and from Laertes’ side insincere) reconciliation between the two combatants, the fencing began in a quite orderly fashion. The masks came off, however, after the first palpable hit, but all still seemed firmly within the rules and spirit of the sport.

Panic at Elsinore

When Laertes lunged at Hamlet and wounded him, he stared back in disbelief. Hamlet retaliated with real fury, and instead of being neatly contained on the piste, the fight ranged across the room. A great commotion broke out among the spectators in an atmosphere of general panic.

In the confusion of the combat they ended up swapping swords. When Hamlet realised that Laertes had been fighting with an unblunted weapon, he used it to strike at Laertes inflicting another mortal wound.

With the queen dead from the poisoned wine and Laertes confessing his plot with the king against Hamlet, the final act of violence in the production almost became a moment of comedy. Realising that the game was up, Claudius scurried across the stage with Hamlet in pursuit, but his gait was comically shuffling as if running were something he was unused to. Needless to say Hamlet easily caught up with him, stabbed him with his sword and forced him to drink the remaining poison.

Hamlet expired, but not before summoning the strength to wrest the poisoned cup from Horatio’s lips. Most productions have the problem of timing his fade-out so that he can still convincingly overpower his friend’s suicidal intentions.

His death was quickly followed by the noise of Fortinbras’ arrival reminding us that the business of politics never ends. Having stated his claim to the throne of Denmark, Fortinbras broadcast his tribute to Hamlet and instructions for the honouring of his dead body via a television crew wearing military uniforms.

Thus the final moment of the play, with a new ruler using the power of broadcast media to stamp his authority on events, echoed Claudius’ televised address near the start of the play. One possible implication of this was that Fortinbras would turn out to be another media-friendly tyrant just like Claudius. If so, Denmark would now be set for more control and oppression.

Some conclusions

The modern staging of this production, setting the play within a world immediately recognisable as our own, provoked a sense of injustice at the power structure of the Danish court. A feeling that there was something jarring, inherently wrong and in need of correction formed the background to any consideration of events within the world of the play. This in turn tended to sideline the familial and philosophical anxieties of the characters. The murder of Ophelia, a shock especially to seasoned Hamlet watchers, did nothing to disengage us from these concerns.

Costume productions set in the past, including the non-specific ‘Ruritanian’ variety, do not have this effect: we tend to accept that autocratic rule and its associated injustices were a fact of history and in this context they do not arouse our concern. This allows our attention to focus more on the philosophical and timeless conundrums contained in the play.

After the stage had cleared and the broil of Elsinore’s troubles had faded, what remained was the memory of Rory Kinnear’s well-enunciated, saturnine discontent in the face of it all. There was calmness in the eye of the storm, but with no power to change anything.


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