This too, too solid flesh

Nicholas Hytner’s Hamlet, with Rory Kinnear in the lead role, was a treat. They came at it with energy and attention; nothing was lost, no phrase allowed to fall to the ground unexplored or unexplained. The setting was a contemporary Eurasian dictatorship, and the actor playing Claudius bore a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin. There was a very visible security presence tipping us off to the state of Denmark as one secretly and constantly watched, and much was made, at least in the early scenes, of the generation gap that fissures the play: Hamlet, Horatio, Laertes and Ophelia belong to a generation newly awake to ideas from outside. Ophelia listens to rock music and reads a book she hides from her father. Hamlet and Laertes strain to return to Wittenburg and France respectively, seats of learning and new ideas, in stark contrast to Denmark’s backward, martial, rotting state. Claudius (Patrick Malahide) was the smiling villian, at once urbane and full of menace, eerily echoing Putin and, behind him, Ahmadinejad. Gertrude (Clare Higgins) was a raddled, raw-boned, hard-drinking dynastic matriarch, capable, one felt, of great rage as well as raucous laughter. Polonius (David Calder) was a suspendered senior public servant, flustered and pompous, subject to senior moments in his discourses. Ophelia (Ruth Negga) was sweet and sad, as she always is.

Kinnear’s Hamlet was one of the best I’ve seen.  Thoughtful, natural, amiable, ranging ably across the mad, the merry and the melancholy. There was, however, something lacking: this Prince was not very princely. For all Hamlet’s navel-gazing, he has also something dashing about him, something dangerous and volatile and swashbuckling. One minute he’s meditating on his own delay, the next fighting a duel, slaying unseen good old men, signing the death warrants of his old school friends, leaping into a woman’s grave at her funeral declaring his boundless love.  This Hamlet - as The Times put it, ‘a Hamlet for now’ - in trainers and an anorak, looked more like an IT boffin than a prince. It was hard to picture him ‘loved of the distracted multitude.’ Hytner said it was wonderful watching Kinnear ‘think his way through the soliloquies.’ It was pleasing to see so much intellectual work in his characterisation, and his laboured thinking gave footholds to the following audience, but it was at the cost of Hamlet’s great mental agility, the lightning speed at which his brain leaps along those rocky promontories of thought.

Hamlet should be more angel than beast. He should tower over his fellows; he is larger than they, larger indeed than the play. As Romantic critic William Hazlitt wrote, “there is no play that suffers so much in being transferred to the stage. Hamlet himself seems hardly capable of being acted.” This is because Hamlet is such a sad, strange mixture of health and sickness, strength and weakness, love and misanthropy. He is a spirit at odds with his faculties, a mind outrunning his too solid flesh. Kinnear did well; yet, like so many others, he came not to the top of Hamlet’s bent.