The Inexhaustible Hamlet

Sep 15, 2014 by

by Theodore Dalrymple – Shakespeare’s tragedy elucidates the paradoxes of human existence.

To mark its 50th anniversary last year, the National Theatre in London relayed its most recent production of Hamlet (2010) to cinemas around the country. The production, much praised, was bad in almost every conceivable way: its scenery, costumes, overall conception, and much of the acting. My wife, who is French, noticed that the diction of the younger actors, including that of Rory Kinnear, who played Hamlet, was much inferior to that of the older, and she was right. It was as if diction, being an undemocratic skill, were no longer taught in our drama schools.

There is no getting away from Hamlet in Hamlet: if Hamlet fails, the production fails. It did not help that Kinnear was balding. This was not his fault, of course, any more than it would be the fault of an actress playing Juliet that she were 65 or of a Falstaff that he were thin and asthenic. But casting has, or ought to have, a logic of its own; it cannot be an equal opportunity employer, any more than can a professional sports team.

Much worse, though, was Kinnear’s acting. It was as if he had taken the prince’s injunctions to the actors who came to Elsinore not as prohibitions but as recommendations. “Do not saw the air with your hand,” Hamlet tells them, and Kinnear proceeded to do that very thing: never was air so vigorously sawed. Hamlet says:

Oh, there be players that I have seen play and heard others praise (and that highly), not to speak it profanely, that, neither having th’ accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

This sums up Kinnear’s performance pretty well. He lay down on the stage and beat the boards, he punched the walls with his fists, so deep were his simulated feelings. It was acting for an age of emotional excess, without subtlety, in which nothing was left to the imagination. This was a histrionic Hamlet untouched by intellect.

The production, as is now more or less de rigueur, was done in modern dress. Kinnear appeared in a gray flannel tracksuit that made him look as if he had just emerged from an unmade bed at midday after a hard night’s drug-taking somewhere in a housing project. During the most famous soliloquy of all, he lit up a cigarette, and I almost hoped that the Health and Safety people would come and take him away for breach of the law against smoking in a public building.

The overall conception of the director, Nicholas Hytner, as he described it in an interview, was based on an interpretation that I found unconvincing to the point of absurdity: namely, that Hamlet was an allegory of totalitarianism—Elizabethan England having been a totalitarian state—and that its main theme was the omnipresence of surveillance. No interpretation can be definitive of a work such as Hamlet, of course, in proof of which whole libraries have been written about its meaning; but it does not follow from the fact that no interpretation is definitive that any interpretation is possible. Here, Osric is got up like a junior officer of a Communist police force—and, indeed, plays him as grim-visaged, making a mockery of Hamlet’s description of him as a water fly. Communist policemen were many things, but not water flies. In his determination to pursue an impossible interpretation, one had the impression, therefore, that Hytner was determined not so much to out-Herod Herod as to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare.

All productions of Hamlet cut the text: without such cuts, it takes five hours to perform, and indeed there are inessential passages that, if played, would reduce the dramatic tension. But one tiny change in the text revealed Hytner’s incompetence. Polonius, the king’s pompous and verbose adviser, tells the king and queen that Hamlet is mad—as usual, making ten words do the work of one. Exasperated, the queen asks him to speak with “More matter, with less art.”

via The Inexhaustible Hamlet by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal Summer 2014.

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