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A CurtainUp London Review
It is the first time I have seen the implication that Ophelia (Ruth Negga) did not drown but was eliminated by Claudius' (Patrick Malahide) henchmen. The last vision of Ophelia before the reporting of her death sees her being manhandled behind the scenes. What this ruse does is to throw into question Gertrude's beautiful speech about the drowning of Ophelia. New questions are raised. Is Gertrude (Clare Higgins) part of the cover up? Does she genuinely believe Ophelia fell? When Laertes asks about Ophelia, Gertrude looks at Claudius and says "Drown'd?" with a rising inflexion and then "Drown'd" she nods acquiescing. And for me despite having seen Hamlet so many times, I now want to know who is Gertrude's source for the description of the death of Ophelia. Who was watching Ophelia? Why didn't they rescue her? Did no one try to dive in after her? It makes a lot of sense that someone as ruthless as Claudius would want the embarrassment of the deranged Ophelia out of the way and I am surprised that, to my knowledge, no director has done this before. The players too are subject to arrest, a logical extension of offending the king in a police state.
Malahide's Claudius is mealy mouthed, a cold political wheeler dealer ruling over a state where fear and oppression are the order of the day and who puts his feet up on his desk as a statement of obvious control. Claire Higgins is an uncomfortable Gertrude, a homely queen out of her depth but who manages a sigh of relief as Claudius finishes his long opening speech.
The brooding presence of Hamlet is almost unnoticeable as he sits to the rear, his hands clasped tightly together during this reception where Laertes is warmly greeted before Claudius' token acknowledgement of the prince. Ruth Negga pleases as Ophelia in a role which often can be annoying or difficult. Solid performances from the ensemble complement the leads.
Although there are some sparks of originality from Hytner's production, overall it is for the actor that one would want to see this Hamlet. Original touches are the momentous noises of crows, the flapping of a book as Hamlet sits in his room thinking about the future. Then there is the placing of an anticipatory Hamlet during the play between Claudius and Gertrude and popping up between them rather than next to Ophelia. I liked too the exciting choreographed, dramatic mimed version of The Mousetrap before it is acted with words, without letting this scene dominate the production as so many do as a directorial trademark.
I last saw Kinnear as a solid Laertes in Trevor Nunn/Ben Whishaw's Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2004. Years back I was not an immediate fan of Rory Kinnear but in fairness I remember him in more comic roles. I didn't anticipate his Hamlet the way other critics did. I was wrong. This changed when I saw him at the National in Burnt by the Sun in 2009. As an actor he has an amazing range of facial expression and of acting with his body. Each gesture is under, rather than over stated, so as to be completely natural. He acts with his heart but is also naturally intelligent and contemplative, called for in the great soliloquies. He owns the role. His Hamlet is a troubled young man full of indecision and is sure to be counted as one of the great actors to play Hamlet—. and be nominated at the upcoming theatre awards for Best Actor.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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