Review – Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, National Theatre

Monday 4 October 2010

There may be something rotten looking at the state of Phil’s fridge but – housekeeping aside – let it be never said that the Whingers were anything but fastidious, especially when it comes to self-improvement.

Well have you ever been to a performance of Hamlet with someone who had a degree in Shakespearean dramaturgy? Well, we did. On Saturday night. We acquired the services of someone called @kerrypolka off Twitter who patiently explained things to us, sometimes several times, over a glass of wine after the preview performance.

We think she was rather pleased with our progress and produced from her handbag some sample GCSE papers for us.

Q. What is Hamlet about?
A. Hamlet is about 3hrs 50 minutes. The first half alone seemed to be that long. Four out of the 8 people in the front rows side section appeared to have their eyes closed. So did Andrew who partook of his statutory 40 winks before perking up in the second half.

Q. Who is Hamlet?
. He seems to be a different character every time he comes on. This may be in the text or this may be Rory Kinnear’s interpretation. Although not terribly exciting, he’s watchable and survives, just about, being forced to dress as a hoodie. Comment très moderne.

Q. Describe Hamlet’s appearance.
A. He has a plaster over his right eyebrow. Possibly as the result of rehearsing the marvellous (SPOILER ALERT) sword fight which takes place at the end when everybody dies!

Q. Was Hamlet mad or pretending to be mad?
A. Pretending.

Q. Was Ophelia mad or pretending to be mad?
A. Off her trolley. Hence the supermarket-trolley she pushes around during the mad scene (this may have been something innovatory for this production).

Q. Was Gertrude in on the murder of her husband?
A. Must have been when you think about it, although the part does seem shockingly under-written in that respect.

Q. Which character did you most empathise with and why?
A. Gertrude – a dipsomaniac in four inch heels as portrayed by Clare Higgins who is more Sophia Loren-ish than any we’ve seen before. She seems less Danish and more to the Italian Mama born. She is agreeably funny from her first scene in which she sits next to Claudius as he gives his television address to the nation. The moment the cameras stop rolling she slumps, laughs and grabs a drink. from then on it’s alcohol all the way. It’s inspired as it makes natural and perfect sense when she (SPOILER ALERT) grabs the poisoned chalice from the palace (as opposed to the brew that is true) and (SPOILER ALERT) dies.

Q. Did Sir Nicholas of Hytner’s innovatory assertion that Ophelia was murdered make sense?
A. Yes. Perfectly. The character of Ophelia is so annoying that it’s a wonder she lasted as long as she did.

Q. From what you observed of the production, describe the designer’s brief to the cast.
A. “Just bring in something from home”

Q. Explain the reluctance of modern productions to do Hamlet “properly” in doublet and hose.
A. We can’t.

Q. Compare and contrast the design aesthetics of the Jude Law Hamlet and the Rory Kinnear Hamlet.
A. Reiss vs Top Shop.

Q. Discuss the significance of soft toys and dolls in Hamlet.
A. Babar The Elephant is a crucial symbol in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s idea was that in carrying Babar around with her, Ophelia was carrying a symbol of Hamlet himself – the elephant in a crown, the elephant which will never forget the fratricidal intercession of Claudius into the lineage which Hamlet sees as his birthright. What many people do not realise is that “rosemary” is an error which crept into the second folio. Previous versions clearly say, “There’s Babar. That’s for remembrance.” The production also featured a naked Barbie doll with her legs splayed but we don’t want to go into that.

Q. Explain Hamlet’s desire to murder his step-father and sleep with his mother?
A. His mother is Claire Higgins!

Q. Discuss the themes of surveillance and spying in Hamlet and their relevance to an Elizabethan audience.
A. We can’t. But we enjoyed the courtiers acting as security men and spies, sporting head-sets and either talking into their cuffs or possibly sniffing their wrists after a visit to the Duty Free perfume shop at the Københavns Lufthavne. It was difficult to tell. “These but the trappings and the suits of woe” gets a very literal twist. The Danish court is awash with men in black, lurking in the shadows.

Q. Did Shakespeare have a sense of humour?
A. Polonius says “brevity is the soul of wit” and “this is too long” and this is clearly Shakespeare having a laugh at his audience’s expense. On the other hand it is difficult to not to want to get up and shove the punning gravedigger’s spade somewhere even gloomier than the stage.

Q. Did you not like the darkness?
. There are compensations in some of the visuals. The scene in which Claudius prays as Hamlet lurks in the shadows with a knife was particularly striking, despite the presence of a Linda Barker four-seater sofa on the other side of the stage. Has the National found new sponsorship with DFS? 

Q. Discuss the importance of stagecraft in Hamlet.
Kinnear’s finest moment sees him deftly flip a sword from the floor with his toe which is then adroitly caught by Laertes. But even more impressive is his dying fall to the stage performed with a glass of bubbly in his hand without spilling a drop. The Whingers were quite awestruck.

Q. Was this a good Hamlet or a bad Hamlet?
A. There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. But it was, we thought, in some respects, a bit innovatory.


45 Responses to “Review – Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, National Theatre”

  1. patrick brightman Says:


    I’m not too sure you should place much faith in your “expert”.

    This is a dreadful dreadful production – Sir Nicholas of Hytner proves in one clean stroke (with or without use of his or anyone else’s toe) that (a) he cannot direct classics (or anything written prior to 1945) and (b) he cannot direct women.

    Gertrude is a beautifully written part – leaving a lot of scope for the actress to make choices. The Closet scene is one of the greatest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote. Clare Higgins left me utterly cold – there is no sense of how or what Gertrude is, no through line, no sense of her place in the palace. Compare this to Penny Downie’s luminous turn for the RSC or Penelope Wilton’s badly dressed but shimmering and stylish take for the Donmar. Higgins, who has done much much better work, was content to scowl and scream and “act”. And erratically drink. Quite why she was drinking, however, was never clear.

    But then, she may have given up having seen what utter tripe poor Ophelia had to deal with. That shopping trolley is a precise indication of what is wrong with this production – Hytner cannot understand the appeal of the text and so resorts to cheap tricks. (I will not mention that ghastly smiley face and those revolting Tshirts – or Babar!!) Ophelia is a difficult role – but critical to the journey of Hamlet. She is integral and must remain so – she can’t, as here, be reduced to an indifferent, illogical and pointless side-show. To suggest she is murdered is not innovation – it is laziness.

    Claudius can be played many ways and in this production we have the political regent – a kind of “Thick of It” Prince Charles absent humour. It does not work – Claudius requires passion, drive, ambition, guts and style – none of which can be faked. As is so clearly shown here.

    Polonious needs to be much funnier that David Calder managed here. Ford-Davies gave a masterclass in Polonious for the RSC when Tennant was the Dane and it is difficult to see others who so dimly pale by comparison.

    Those four, Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius and Polonious, are essential to make Hamlet work. Tennant had extraordinary support when he did the Dane; Jude Law less striking but still reasonably solid support. Kinnear has none – not a single one of the four is good enough to spark off. (Compare this to the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scenes, where Kinnear positively glows because he gets something back from the other characters and has a way to generate interest, energy and excitement)

    And yet, Kinnear is remarkable. One can only wonder at how fabulous his Hamlet would have been with proper support. He is funny, mercurial, vicious, tortured, passionate, lost, haunted, hunted, harrowing and athletic, albeit occassionally badly dressed. His verse-speaking is precise, clear and evocative, awash with lyrical joy. It is a performance devoutly to be wished – and one that should be savoured.

    There are some startlingly vivid images: the Sunset Boulevarde moment for “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I”; the through-the-window Hamlet/Claudius moment; Kinnear rocking silently, crying in anguish at the end of the first half; Claudius trying to unbutton Gertrude’s top and the press scene at the very top of the show – just some of the clever moments.

    But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the production is what Kinnear does in the first two minutes he is onstage. His silent submission of the passport, his smouldering fury at Claudius’ obvious and calculated slight, his calm but violent recovery of his passport, the contempt and rage that pulses from him as he sits silently waiting, waiting…….in those two minutes Kinnear deftly and precisely sketches the outline of his Prince and the direction and rationale for what follows. Through the sheer force of his acting skill, Kinnear makes you understand why he is angry, how he hates and who – and sows the seeds for the possibility of revenge which will propel him (and the audience) for the next three hours and forty minutes.

    He really is remarkable.

    This production has not opened yet and will surely settle and evolve. But it has a number of inherent flaws to overcome, thanks to direction, before it can fly as it should. That said, I think this is easily the clearest story-telling of Hamlet in recent years – the glory moments the text offers have been sacrificed for clarity of narrative. Why, one asks, can’t the audience have both?

    All three of your stars should be for Rory Kinnear.

  2. JohnnyFox Says:

    I was hoping for the ROY Kinnear Hamlet.

    Although unfortunately Kinnear Sr. was only the gravedigger at Elsinore in 1964 but should have swapped with pre-Baron von Trapp Plummer and played the title role, would have been a much better production.

  3. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    So, this will not be the production to play the revelatory theory I had explained to me years ago that the Ghost is Osric.

    Claudius and Osric were lovers, you see; he* wanted to give him everything – flowers, presents, but most of all the position of court chamberlain and favourite after they’d murdered the old king together and Claudius succeeded to the throne. But when Claudius instead opted for ostensible heterosexuality and a marriage that would to an extent legitimise his place on the throne, the spurned Osric looked for revenge. How could he best leak word of the murder? Obviously, by dressing up in spook clobber and hanging round battlements at night until the word got to the Prince, at which point… bom-bom-bom-bom, Tell Hamlet he* killed meeee…

    *Claudius, but it wouldn’t have scanned.

  4. phil k (not whinger Phil) Says:

    Patrick, I have full confidence in our expert 😉

    Although we were able to unlock much of the complex symbology such as Barbar the Elephant/Rosemary/not forgetting stuff, over a glass of wine (or was it that it appeared to make sense, post alcohol), there were still some elements that were troubling.

    Is there significance in Gerturde’s killer Leopard-skin heels?

    What do we think of Rosencrantz quote protrayed like an IT nerd? And for that matter, is Rosencrantz supposed to be Jewish? (our expert thought so, but did put this down to the fact that she’d been in synagogue for several hours that day, after which everyone seemed to be Jewish).

    Hamlet in a Hoodie, does this symbolise soemthing, or had the run out of budget for costumes at this point?

    Will Rory Kinnear please stop spitting at the audience when delivering his line? Less phlegm, more conviction please! Or is that supposed to signify something?

    There are just too many levels to interpret here, it gets complex……..

    • JohnnyFox Says:

      when I booked to see Ralph Fiennes do it (yes in the infamous production where he started bonking Francesca Annis) the woman at Hackney Empire asked ‘do you really want to sit in the third row’? We couldn’t understand why until we encountered not just the spitting but the copious perspiration and head tossing which fanned it well into the stalls.

      We four forty-somethings were the only adults amid four rows of fourteen year old schoolgirls with their mouths open.

  5. Gareth James Says:

    Do you think Sir Nicholas stole the ‘men in black’ idea from the Union down the road who did that in Assassins?

  6. patrick brightman Says:

    Gareth – the same thought occurred to me re Assassins. Of course, if the palace was riddled with those hot men in black, Hamlet would never have got anywhere near Claudius in order to consider killing him. Flaw 7563 in Sir Nicholas’ grand design…

    Gertrude’s heels signified her lavish lifestyle post death of husband number one. One of Sir Nicholas’ more subtle choices…

    Quite liked the jewish nerdy Rosencrantz – at least he was a character you could understand and one who did everything the role required. Not sure he was meant to be jewish though – the name is Scandanavian I think, possibly Nordic.

    Hamlet in a hoodie – just meant to represent the fashion fate of the common masses methinks – Tennant had similar garb in similar places. More subtlety.

    They all spit – Tennant, Law, Russell-Beale, Fiennes, Gielgud, Olivier, Jacobi, Burton, Simm, Stephens. Its a male thing. Dench, Downie and Walter never saw the need; neither does Higgins.

    Many people would pay for Rory Kinnear to spit on them…

  7. ms.marple investigates Says:

    Rory Kinnear a fantastic Hamlet and Clare Higgins a foxy Gertrude in f*ck-me shoes – and all for a tenner! Gawd bless…

  8. Forgot to mention one of the best bits: Hamlet produces some Mousetrap merchandising in the form of T-shirts. Rather good actually.

  9. ja Says:

    Well this is all a bit depressing, I’ve got a ticket for mid October. 3hrs and 50 mins (not many cuts then?) and the most exciting part of the night is Gertrude’s fuck me shoes? At least something to look forward to. What does Ophelia wear – doc martins?

    • Awful Hamlet Says:

      Stay at home. It’s a total pile of rubbish. Poor elucidation of script, boring sparse set, odd interpretation and an offensive interpretation of madness. Stay at home. It’s a waste of life going to see it. I wanted to be put down after 20 minutes and to leave at half time. I was with a friend who also thought it was rubbish but hoped it would improve in the second half. So we stayed and as you have heard the second half is WEAKER!

      Dear me. Awful, awful, awful.

      • vi_ka Says:

        I saw this play last Saturday and it was just sooo boring and incoherent and AWFUL that I left after the first part. I’d never done that before and I felt really bad reading all the 5 stars and 4 stars reviews in the papers…

        Now I’m glad that it wasn’t just me.

        Firstly Rory Kinnear might be the best of actors but I couldn’t believe for a second him being a student. Just too old and too bald. I know… Sorry.
        And he was spitting. I don’t mean the actual saliva – I mean he was spitting the words, over-emphasizing every first syllable. Ophelia was annoying, Gertrude dull and Polonius… well, VERY dull.
        And I hated the costumes and I hated the fag. I mean… do you really need a cigarette to say “To be or not to be”!? Really!?

        The only part when I honestly felt engaged was the appearance of the Ghost. He took my breath away!

        One star from me, and that goes to James Laurenson.

  10. phil k (not whinger Phil) Says:


  11. Kerry Says:

    Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were pretty clearly intended to be IT nerds (Rosencrantz’s specs joined Gertrude’s pumps on the Big List Of Accessories I’m-a Gonna Steal From Backstage). Shorthand for IT nerd = Jewish or South Asian. So Hyntner went for both! Obviously Rosencrantz didn’t start out his textual life as a Jewish character but the name sure sounds Ashkenazi. Not sure what part of South Asia the Guildensterns hail from, though.

    ja, Ophelia is a cheery indie kid with Converse and a record deck. I quite liked her until THE MAD SCENE.

    I agree there’s really no good way to play THE MAD SCENE without devolving into obnoxiousness. It’s very meaningful and symbolic and all that, but the actress doesn’t have a lot of leeway with the “BUGGEDY BUGGEDY BUGGEDY! I’M CRAAAAAZY!” text. Oh well.

    I loved Claudius having her whacked. There’s never going to be a Perfectly True To The Text production and there shouldn’t be. Hamlet is a bit rub in places (see above BUGGEDY BUGGEDY) and it would be boring to watch the exact same choices and interpretations every time we had a revival.
    I also really dug the street dance as part of the Mousetrap performance. More Mousetraps should have hip-hop in them. MORE HIP-HOP, LESS BUGGEDY BUGGEDY.

    Anyway it was a very jolly evening out. Hamlet’s always good fun even when it’s mediocre.

    • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

      “there’s really no good way to play THE MAD SCENE without devolving into obnoxiousness” – Michelle Dockery in the current Sheffield production manages it. Her Ophelia is so low-key the rest of the time that her madness consists of heartbreaking vitality right on the brink of death.

  12. patrick brightman Says:

    Do not worry Ja – it may be Three Hours Forty minutes, but it does not get boring.


    The first half races along. This is mainly because of Kinnear’s energy. Honestly, Jude Law’s version seemed much much longer, despite the fact that he was rather good and there were many many cuts compared to this version.

    The second half lags a little, but then the second half of Hamlet always does, as Hamlet himself is not centrestage as much.

    It is by no means an ordeal. Compared to Danton’s Death, it is an absolute cracking romp.

    And when was the last time you got to see a Hamlet who did ALL the soliloquies.

    Its long but not deathly. Avoiding the spit will keep you awake…..

    • Philk (not Whinger Phil) Says:

      Oh, please don’t even mention ‘Danton’s Death’. He couldn’t have died fast enough in my opinion…..

    • Awful Hamlet Says:

      I thought it was the dullest thing I have ever saw and I went to see ‘Nation’ – I had that grinding distress brought on by a totally wasted evening.

      • phil k (not whinger Phil) Says:

        I really do love this open minded attitude that you’ve taken to the whole production, ‘Awful Hamlet’

  13. Kerry Says:

    Forgot to add, thought Polonius was fairly dull and needed better timing, but his postmortem hand-levitating skills = AMAZING.

  14. ja Says:

    Dont worry Patrick, Im sure I will enjoy it, have seen plenty of Hamlets already, inc Jude Law last year.
    So at risk of spoiler alerts, how does Claudius ‘whack’ Ophelia – by tying her to the trolley that then drags her to the bottom of the lake?

  15. Wendy Manning Says:

    We loved it and found it engrossing. RK is completely astonishing, taking every word apparently from his train of thought rather than 400 years of tradition; how does anyone do that? Who else acts filmically (can this be a word?) using a kind of hyper-ventilating when the Ghost appears? I thought the slightly odd costume choices worked in emphasising Hamlet as student prince (cf also ill-made bed with grotty duvet and spilling-out trunk of books..) Liked the supporting cast too – especially Gertrude who was pissed and credible and nicely badly-behaved, I thought. And Horatio was spot on. The only weakness was the last scene – tough to do admittedly but this one had too many scattered bodies and a kind of smiling semi-recumbent Hamlet. Amazing evening though..

  16. sandown Says:

    Rosencrantz is Shakespeare’s joke: “crants” was a slang word for buttocks. “Stern” is too obvious to point out.

    A prize to the first designer who dresses R. in a rosy-pink doublet and G. in a goldy one.

  17. Mark Shenton Says:

    First you spell Minnelli as Minelli (see my comment yesterday to your review posting on THE DROWSY CHAPERONE); now you spell Clare Higgins as Claire (actually, to be fair, you speell it BOTH ways….)

  18. Trevor Wood Says:

    If you think this Hamlet was bad, just pop round the corner and see ‘Or You Could Kiss Me’ at the Cottesloe. 1 hour 40 minutes of pretentious tedium that seemed more like 3 hours and 50 minutes. Can’t wait to see the all wooden puppet version of Hamlet (Twiglet ?) that I am sure the National are planning for us.

  19. Michael Says:

    Too too comic blog!
    Really entertaining and just plain interesting.

  20. Graham Says:

    It all sounds a bit gimmicky – was there a tandem?

  21. Gertrude Says:

    Rory Kinnear was very strong and he’ll only get better. I would see it again just for him. Just the words. Just the thought and the words. That’s it.

    And he climbs into his university trunk.

    And there was no Hamlet sex with Gertrude. Phew!

    And what about that mime? Come on that was a good one.

    I could have done without Ophelia, Laertes and Horatio. Hopeless. Whenever they were on the play died.

    PS I saw Roy Kinnear’s Gravedigger

    • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

      Trunk-squatting is older than I am. Ian Bannen climbed into the players’ props trunk for “rogue and peasant slave” in 1961.

      Ruth Negga’s a fine actor – so fine that I can’t believe she expended all her effort on maintaining an RP accent as Ophelia (it’s the first time I’ve seen her not use her natural northside Dublin brogue) – so I can only conclude that she had the living shit directed out of her.

      • Natasha Says:

        I completely agree. Ruth Negga was glorious in Phedre last year, quite the best thing about that production. But she’s rather underpowered here. There was however a real sense of sibling warmth with Laertes; they both seemed more at ease in their shared scene than at later points in the play.

  22. Poor Yorick Says:

    Very funny blog, but to cavil is easy. This is a good Hamlet, Kinnear a top notch Prince. Good to hear the words for a change. Mind you, I think we are blessed with more than acceptable Hamlets: SRB, Ben Whishwash, Dr Who – all good, and reportedly even Mr Law stepped up. Hytner needs to lose the conceptual le Carre stuff and trust the words, as Kinnear does. I give it four stars.

  23. Michael Says:

    I saw this on Saturday afternoon. What a marvellous performance from Rory Kinnear!
    Do, do, do go & see it if you haven’t yet; his acting, delivery and invention are very, very good.
    I found the whole production engaging and just must say a word for Horatio – well done & thanks: it’s not that much of a part, but it was played well.
    Other plusses; Gertrude, Polonius, old Hamlet.
    Not sure quite what was going on with Laertes – perhaps he’d been directed that way, which is to say, a bit, umm, flat.

    So happy I went!

  24. ja Says:

    Well having seen it last night, all I can say is clearly the production has bedded in and is now running superbly. Really enjoyed the evening, at 3 hrs 45 mins, the time flew by. In terms of telling the story, the production was perhaps the most lucid Hamlet I have seen. I would happily see it again tonight.

  25. Rebeccadb Says:

    I saw the show last night (Fri 22/10/10) & really loved Rory Kinnear’s performance. Vocally I found him very exciting with definite new takes on the well known text & delivery. A massive personal leap forward from his Angelo at the Almeida earlier this year. He’s my 5th Hamlet & seriously the only one I have already booked to see again. Some of his cast are not so hot & were disappointing in terms of voice projection, colour & delivery (this applies both to the older experienced cast members as well as those out of drama school.

    Kudos also to Ruth Negga, Clare Higgins & David Calders Gravedigger among others. I also liked the elegant flexible sets & costumes.

    Nick Hytner was interesting in the pre-show Platford event talking about his take on the text & his decisions to focus on the political elements of the play that are often cut. Reread the play last night & he’s right about the spy & surveillance lines which he’s chosen to play. I’d recommend the production, its a good one & you can’t argue about value for money when its £10 for 3.5 hours of entertainment!!!

  26. Robbie Says:

    I’m a student doing research for an essay on this production and can I just say that reading this page has been akin to watching a sketch show, it’s cheered me up to warm degree, from the extended commentary of in depth analysers to the nostalgic contemplation of the theatre veterans, even the guy making pithy asides at everyone else’s comments! I’m defiantly coming back here.

  27. […] Review – Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, National Theatre ( […]

  28. Moja Says:

    This is the first time I’ve watched Hamlet, so I have nothing to compare it with. I thought some of the scenes before the interval were too long and had too much dialogue. My mind wandered off once or twice, and missed parts of the story. I didn’t realise that the bible had been bugged, for instance.

    Thank God that I had the chance to drink some coffee during the interval! I think it’s great that we can watch Hamlet for only £10, but if you’re new to Hamlet, I recommend reading a book of the play first.

  29. […] Review – Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, National Theatre ( […]

  30. Dominick Says:

    I saw it last night and didn’t like it. My Stern and Crants were painfully numb after act 1, I literally suffered for my art last night.

    I feel its a play that simply allows the actors (esp. Hamlet) to be self-indulgent, while we sit there for 4 hours.

    Heretical to say, but Shakespeare wrote many plays better than Hamlet. Save your pennies and buttocks and go and see Twelfth Night at the NT in the New Year.

  31. anthrogirl Says:

    Saw Hamlet at the National, and was overwhelmed by Rory Kinnear’s performance.
    Admittedly, there were flaws in the production and some of the supporting actors didn’t live up to their parts, but how anyone could fault Polonius or Gertrude or Claudius defies my imagination. Saw it again in movie theatre where I was even MORE impressed by Kinnear. The production flaws were both exaggerated and, at the same time, softened on the screen. And I should mention, that when we saw the play at the National, another actor played the role of Gertrude and was absolutely terrible.
    What fascinated me was the way in which Kinnear made us aware of Shakespeare’s wit and irony. Here in the states, he is an icon to be read with deep earnestness.
    Whatever its flaws, this was a terrific Hamlet.

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