The Oaks beams in outstanding 'Hamlet' from Britain
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The feature onscreen before the National Theatre Live production of "Hamlet" Thursday night at The Oaks pointed out the hundreds of years that actors have been taking on the dark torment of the Danish prince.
In the past couple of years, Hamlet has been tackled by Jude Law in London and on Broadway; the 10th Doctor Who, David Tennant, in a filmed Royal Shakespeare Company production; and another Time Lord (and star of the UK's "Life on Mars"), John Simm, at The Sheffield Crucible.
So why "Hamlet" at the National now? In that same pre-show featurette, director Nicholas Hytner said, "I was waiting to find the right Hamlet, and I found him in Rory Kinnear."
The Oaks theater in Oakmont is showing productions beamed from the UK to movie screens live in 16 countries and four "that are not quite live." The U.S. screening must fall into the latter group because the 7 p.m. showtime here would have been 1 a.m. there.
As the couple dozen of us who braved the elements arrived, the screen was filled with people filling their seats at the National Theatre to see Kinnear's acclaimed performance during the sold-out run. Then came our host, Brit broadcaster Emma Freud (quite appropriately for "Hamlet," the great-granddaughter of Sigmund), explaining how things work, that there would be the same 20 minute intermission for the movie-theater audiences. She interviewed Mr. Hytner on the spot before a short making-of feature was shown.
When the production began, it was clear right away that this was a multicamera, cinematic experience as opposed to a single-shot, live-audience experience. That worked well at times, certainly during soliloquies or in highlighting menacing, snooping guards lurking in the backdrop of many scenes. In other ways, particularly the opening, it was difficult to figure out the spatial relationships between actors on the stage, as when Horatio and company encounter the king's ghost.
Transitions that may have seemed smooth to the live audience were sometimes abrupt camera changes, but the overall effort to bring this "Hamlet" to a world stage was certainly a noble one.
Mr. Kinnear and Clare Higgins as Gertrude were older players than we're used to seeing. I think of Gertrude as a mother and bride who practically grew up with Hamlet, more late 30s to his late teens or 20 than 55 and 32, as these actors are.
But there's much about this production that throws convention out the window, including a multiracial cast and modern sets and dress. The newly minted king and Hamlet's stepdad, Patrick Malahide's slimy Claudius, is a murderer and foremost, a politician, using his "grieving" for his brother and his marriage to his sister-in-law as photo opps.
Denmark's royal family is constantly accompanied by sinister men in black, a secret service detail of spies. Cameras and listening devices are employed in the distrustful environment of the palace, rendered as a series of austere walls, doors and windows with minimal furniture.
The environmental inspiration was easy to find, Mr. Hytner said in the interviews. "You don't have to look far for dictatorships based on murder and surveillance."
Mr. Kinnear is masterful at conveying the complexities of Hamlet's well-known inner struggles: Should he seek revenge for his father's death at the hands of his uncle? How should he deal with his mother, who married his uncle not two months after his father's death? Should he commit suicide?
Hamlet's all-too familiar lines -- "To be or not to be ...," "The play's the thing ..." are delivered so that they don't seem trite and their meaning is clear, even if the Bard never could have envisioned them coming from a guy in a grungy hoodie.
Ruth Negga's large eyes and thin frame make for a stunningly fragile Ophelia. Her interaction with Hamlet is brief and while her hurt is palpable, it's the one fault with Mr. Kinnear's performance that the audience doesn't feel Hamlet's remorse for that particular lost love.
There's so much more that works effectively here -- such as Mr. Kinnear playing the mad man and disdaining the treachery of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the play within the play, with sexually charged mimes and then the same actor as the ghost also portraying the player king.
So, why "Hamlet" again? To see an actor with stage chops and passion and commitment give it a go and a quality production from a collaborative director with a 21st-century vision.
The National Theatre's "Hamlet" repeats at The Oaks at 2 p.m. Sunday.
First Published January 8, 2011 12:00 am