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.
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.