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New Year’s Eve: London

January 1, 2011

The best play in town is The National Theatre’s Hamlet with Rory Kinnear as Hamlet, directed by Nicholas Hytner.

The setting is modern, a surveillance state with guards in suits and with ear pieces lining the corridors, as in the White House, and being witness to all the action. Don’t dismiss this as a gimmick. It is supported by the text which defines Elsinore as a palace of spies – Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on his own son in Paris, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent for by the king to spy on Hamlet, the king and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia. It is not, therefore, altogether wild to have Ophelia hide a tape-recorder in her book for her conversation with Hamlet as he feigns madness and Polonius and the king listening, not behind a wall, but on headphones in another room.

But this never gets in the way of the action. Rather it simply fosters another view into a play grown dangerously over-familiar.

There is a force and directness here, confering clarity on a piece notoriously difficult to make work on the stage as distinct to working as a poem, a “poem unlimited” in the words of the lordly critic, Harold Bloom. There were moments when I could have been seeing it for the first time, such was the freshness, and I was hanging on every word.

Especially for the seven soliloquies.

Hytner in the program notes says that when Hamlet returns to Denmark after being rescued by pirates “there is a mystical, even spiritual, element to him. He has discovered something mysteriously enough for him to be unable to explain it in a soliloquy. Famously the soliloquies stop.”

The best stage Hamlet I can recall up to now was the one Hytner acted, done for the National in 1988 or 1989. I remember the graveyard scene with the conversation about death hanging in the frosty air. What is Hamlet, after all, but a meditation about death (and life) set in the form of an Elizabethan revenge drama?

With familiarity you become still more fond of the language of the play, even as you feel you are close to knowing it by heart. “Coagulate gore” is an old friend and the line, “How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge”. I like Hamlet’s quick suspicion that his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been recruited to spy on him : ” Were you not sent for ?” and their alacrity at changing the subject to that of the visiting players, knowing that will thrill Hamlet who loves the theatre.

Shakespeare gives Hamlet the speech advising actors on their craft (and here we are never more certain anywhere in the 39 plays that we are hearing Shakespeare’s personal voice : “Speak the speech…”).

The king after the commotion with the players is “in his retirement marvelous distemp’red”. Such words and sentences have become old friends.

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

Yet I’d never absorbed before Hamlet’s reference to his “aunt mother and uncle father”, again an example of the endless wit and paradox of the prince’s “wild and whirling words”.

But to keep charming us the play has to be performed with clarity delivered by flexible, commanding, charismatic voices . Never – I take issue with Australian directors on this – in flat, Aussie accents. Good voices are what this production gives us. I liked it more than the heavily praised 2008 RSC production with David Tennant and, in its more modest way, I think it makes Kenneth Branagh’s ambitious 1996 movie a little overblown – although Branagh gave us, uniquely, the full 4000 lines and four hours. This by contrast, like all other productions, had something like 500 lines removed and runs for three hours 35 minutes including a 20 minute interval. It is Shakespeare’s longest play but suffers little from being tightened, as Mel Gibson’s excellent movie version confirmed. And Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film even removed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras.

And 500 years after it was first performed we haven’t been able to better it- that is, as a writhing, galloping commentary on life and death with pulsing, flawed humans getting things muddled and freezing at crucial moments and judging one another ceaselessly and, every now and then, making sense of the flow of events that can at anytime overwhelm.

As we applauded I thought of Will. Of that brain with it’s 20,000 word vocabulary and colossal capacity to summarize human complexity. Samuel Johnson wrote, ” His works may be considered a map of life.” There are too few synonyms for genius.

A brisk 45 minute walk through London, another delicious curry at the best house in the city (see below) and on TV Verdi’s Rigoletto with Placido Domingo, from the ducal palace in Mantua. Verdi, the master of humanity and compassion in music drama was a profound admirer of Shakespeare. How many words for genius?

Happy New Year!

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