Welcome to Elsinore – police state, eavesdroppers in every nook and cranny and electrical devices stashed in smart silver briefcases ready to use on anyone who can't cough up the truth in less than 5 seconds. Something might indeed be rotten in the state of Denmark, but the government snooping department works with clockwork efficiency. Large, scary types skulk around the palace sporting those neat little black earpieces beloved by door attendants at dubious nightclubs, and fighter jets scream overhead roaring their defiance at potential invaders. All rather 1984, even if it's actually 2010.
Such is the vision of the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, who assumes command of Shakespeare's tragedy to conjure up a world that is reminiscent of the old Warsaw Pact countries, or possibly even the paranoid control freaks of the early – or even later - New Labour government.
You've probably got the basic idea by now that this is a modern version of Hamlet without even a sliver of tights in sight. Well, that's not quite true because one thing actually is tight and that's Hamlet's Mum, Gertrude, whose pretty-well smashed on whiskey much of the time and dodders around on a rather stylish pair of leopard skin (simulated, of course) high heels. Rory Kinnear as Hamlet dons trainers and a hoody, rolls around feigning madness under a duvet and puffs on a cigarette while delivering soliloquies. Ophelia pushes a Tesco's trolley around the stage with all her bibs and bobs in it. Now the trolley might be just a step too far, as could also be said of the 'villain' T-shirt which Hamlet makes everyone wear while watching the play. But, therein lies the inevitability of bringing 'Hamlet' up-to-date – decisions have to made which fit with the overall vision, and that leaves open the door for criticism.
In contrast to the otherwise screaming modernity, the royal palace looks like it's just been shipped over from Athens. But that actually fits quite well with the overall concept since totalitarian regimes have a tendency to erect palaces and parliaments which have the look of democratic authenticity. Vicki Mortimer's set neatly folds in and out on itself creating more intimate spaces such as offices and bedrooms as well as grander settings for the play and court events.
Rory Kinnear, though looking youthful at times, still seems a bit on the mature side for the role. It stretches the imagination somewhat to believe that this Hamlet is raring to get back to uni to continue his studies or, more likely, drown his sorrows at the uni bar. That aside, Mr Kinnear brings considerable power to the role with a huge range of emotions on display. However, I never felt that his Hamlet could be on the brink of madness. Even when he's raging, he still seems to be completely in control, rather than verging on the point of psychological disintegration, but that may be the point. The soliloquies are strong and well-delivered in a clear and distinctive style, and there are frequent flashes of real brilliance. On the whole though, in spite of the energy and effort Mr Kinnear invests in the role, I really couldn't decide whether his Hamlet is one for the history books or not – that probably means it isn't, at least for me. On the downside, the fight scene at the end of the play isn't particularly arresting, and Hamlet's dying moments lacked conviction and realism.
James Laurenson is a fine ghost, quietly spoken but spooky nonetheless. Patrick Malahide's Claudius is understated almost to the point of banality, like talking to a boring neighbour about cabbages over the garden fence. Ruth Negga's Ophelia is rather too frantically deranged for my taste, but Claire Higgins introduced an interesting dimension as Gertrude who here is basically a second-rate film star fading into oblivion under the influence of copious quantities of alcohol.
The modern setting for this version of 'Hamlet' won't please everyone, of course. But apart from a couple of niggles – the shopping trolley and silly T-shirts – it works well because it's meticulously considered and has political validity. And, judging by the audience's reaction, Mr Kinnear's Hamlet seems a hit, in spite of my reservations.
"Kinnear's fine Hamlet...Kinnear is a strong, clearly-defined Hamlet...Both for Kinnear's performance and the revelatory detail of the production, this is an evening to admire and cherish."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"In Rory Kinnear the National Theatre has a stunning new Hamlet. From the moment we first see him he’s a captivating presence.."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Rory Kinnear’s intelligent, dry-witted student prince...An intriguing production that prompts and probes like an interrogation in a bare room.
Neil Norman for The Daily Express
"[Rory Kinnear] towering performance...a chilling production that demands to be seen."
David Lister for The Independent
"With great modesty, Mr Kinnear makes this modern Hamlet his distinctive possession.
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Kinnear proves a Hamlet of great individuality and distinction."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph