Shakespeare’s plays have an uncanny ability to always seem timely. So it’s not surprising that the National Theatre’s (NT) new production of Hamlet, which will be digitally beamed from London to both Montecito and Goleta next week as part of the NT Live series, contains echoes of current events.
In this modern-dress production, Denmark is a police state threatened by external and internal forces. The populace—including the prince, who is reeling from the sudden death of his father—is constantly under surveillance. Given the current controversy about privacy, security, and airport scanners, the visual motif of electronic monitoring devices promises to deliver some shivers.
Then there’s the play’s central dilemma, which is oddly reflective of our current national politics. Hamlet is a rational young man who is forced to face the reality of a world driven by irrational fears and desires—a place where powerful people plot to assume positions of yet greater power.
As he gradually realizes through a series of soul-searching soliloquies, his belief in reason and reasonableness is clearly not cutting it; a bolder, less-cautious course of action is clearly called for. Substitute “president” for “prince,” and it quickly becomes clear not much has changed in the past 400 years.
As Norman Rabkin puts it in his classic study Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, “The play presents an ideal, that of reason, in such a way that we must recognize its absolute claim on our moral allegiance, and then entirely subverts that ideal by demonstrating that its polar opposite is the only possible basis for the action its protagonist is morally committed to perform.” A man of reason is driven by dark passion to become a man of action. Is he losing himself in the process—or finding himself?
We have been blessed, Hamlet-wise, in recent years: Jenny Sullivan directed a strong production at the Rubicon Theatre in 2007, and Jessica Kubzansky created a sweeping, thrilling staging at Ojai’s Theater 150 in 2009. But of course, London is never lacking in Hamlets, and the city’s top critics have given the new National Theatre production high marks. It was staged by the company’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, a veteran of theater, film (The Madness of King George), and opera (his new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo for the Met, which has also received critical acclaim, will be simulcast in Hahn Hall on Dec. 11).
Hytner told the media he was inspired to tackle Hamlet by the potential he saw in young actor Rory Kinnear. The reviews suggest his confidence was well-placed. “Kinnear is an almost perfect exponent of this version of a 2010 black prince,” writes Paul Levy in the Wall Street Journal. “He makes the familiar lines feel fresh, not through any tricks of timing or voice, but by the application of intelligence—he actually appears to be thinking about what the words and lines mean as he is saying them.”
“Despite a receding hairline, Kinnear is very much the student prince in his hoodie and rumpled trousers,” Charles Spencer writes in the Daily Telegraph. “He even smokes a cigarette while delivering ‘To be, or not to be.’ But you can follow every shade of thought and flicker of emotion in the soliloquies, which are delivered with a beautiful mixture of intellect and feeling.”
“Hytner offers a detailed political, social, and psychological context to the action,” adds the Guardian’s Michael Billington. In that other Independent (the one based in London), David Lister describes that context as quite dark, noting, “The set is a large room framed by large doorways, themselves usually framed by a security man with an earpiece. It is rare for two people to have a conversation onstage alone. Nearly always, someone is watching, listening, moving off to file a report.”
Modern-day Iran, perhaps, with its clash of realpolitik and religiosity? As always, Hamlet reflects our world in multiple ways. Whether it’d be wise to catch this production isn’t really a question at all.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents National Theatre Live’s Hamlet at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, December 13 at Hahn Hall, on the campus of the Music Academy of the West, and at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 14 at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Tickets are $18 ($10 for UCSB students). Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.