Tonight was the first preview of the National's production of Hamlet with Rory Kinnear following David Tennant, Jude Law and John Simm in what is a rich time for thirty something actors playing the Dane. There were high expectations and the audience were jittery willing it to go well. On balance this probably isn't a redefining interpretation of a great play but it's certainly full of good stuff.
Nick Hytner has form in placing Shakespeare's plays within a contemporary context. His Winter's Tale hinted at the loveless marriages and wayward teenage behaviours of our current royal family and his Henry V took us straight into the Iraq war.
This time the parallel takes us back in time. Elsinore is clearly a media aware, surveillance state, carefully constructed and controlled by Claudius and beyond the white palace walls and frosted windows the seeds of rebellious uprising bubble throughout continually put down by the military police. Having upset the Court, the poor players are unceremoniously marched off to their deaths without any protection from their patron and Laertes guerrilla followers are dispatched with equal efficiency once their leader pledges his own loyalty to the new King. Later Ophelia's suicide is assisted by Osric, who graduates from Shakespearean fool to a menacing head of the secret service. The stakes are high, the casualties numerous, the storm approaches. If we're anywhere it's Ceausescu's Romania at the end of the eighties.
The highlight of the evening is Kinnear himself who, despite all the secular trickery of the production, manages to summon an element of metaphysical wonder as he explores the unfathomable supernatural forces surrounding his bereaved state. His father's ghost is real - not imagined or dreamt and whilst the state totters around him he maintains both clarity and a brutal sense of strategy in order to play out his revenge mission. He is ruthless, driven and untouchable, neither asking for nor receiving much sympathy for the intensity of his cause. Even though his journey through the play sometimes loses coherence as he tries to make sense of verse and concept simultaneously, the familiar lines are treated with weight and examined with fresh intelligence. Hamlet knows he can't make sense of the fragmented universe in which he finds himself and I often think the tragedy is his refusal to sit tight and wait for an acceptable compromise to emerge. For the most part Kinnear's unapologetic prince brilliantly shows that resolutions cannot be found by blazing through the pure world of ideas, especially when faced by those who prefer power to truth - reconciliation and renewal take a less direct route.