In the programme that accompanies the current production of Hamlet, Peter Holland informs us that ‘Stalin did not like Hamlet’ adding, by way of an explanation that ‘Plays about assassinating the ruler were not recommended under a dictatorship’. A few years ago Rupert Goold directed Macbeth (Patrick Stewart) as a tyrannical despot, a man who delegated the murder of his enemies to his henchmen. In this current Hamlet Patrick Malahide’s Claudius, although a consummate, slick statesman on the surface, is a similar kind of usurping king, who rules Denmark like as a police state. Whether or not it is intentional, he even resembles Vladimir Putin (who once controlled the USSR’s KGB) with his slim build and balding head.
Clare Higgins, as Gertrude and the widow of the late king, is a woman used to playing the role of queen. But whether life, or just her bereavement and recent ‘o’erhasty marriage’, have now taken their toll, she is rather fond of unwinding with a glass of whisky in her hand. This Queen of Denmark is a mature woman, who gradually becomes suspicious of her new husband; before Hamlet visits her in her closet she has already thrown a few distrustful glances at Claudius. Despite her protestations to the contrary, this Gertrude most definitely sees her late husband when he appears in her closet after the murder of Polonius: her eyes are wide open to both brothers. Given the surveillance society that is presented at the palace of Elsinore, Gertrude’s misgivings are justified. Men wearing dark suits, with earpieces clearly visible, lurk in all corners of the stage, often talking into contraptions on their wrists. A young prince, recently and suddenly bereaved, could easily suffer delusions of paranoia in such a household. You could certainly offer Hamlet forgiveness for his callous instructions to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bumped off in such a dog-eat-dog suspicious society.
Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet is a mature student through and through; his bedroom is a tip and he hides under his duvet (with no cover on it) fully clothed and wearing his trainers. He is miserable and depressed over his father’s sudden death and his mother’s remarriage to her brother-in-law and this psychological state of mind gives impetus to his ‘madness’. His mood changes frequently from unhappiness to anger and aggression and his soliloquies reveal a great amount of introspection and self-analysis. He is rough with Ophelia, disrespectful to his mother and insolent towards Claudius. In a surveillance culture where even Ophelia’s book is bugged and Polonius and Claudius appear wearing headphones, as they listen in to the lovers’ conversation, he appears to trust nobody. There is most definitely something rotten in Nicholas Hytner’s Denmark, and this corruption infects all those whom it touches.
Russell Jackson also contributes to the programme notes and discusses various past productions of Hamlet that have tried to locate the play in their own times. Although this staging was formulated before the current WikiLeaks revelations it collides with them by portraying a country run by a corrupt, murderous regime, just as Putin’s Russia has recently been equated with a ‘mafia state’. Claudius orders Hamlet’s murder in the play, and Hytner’s direction for the National Theatre also shows a pair of suspicious dark-suited men abducting Ophelia prior to the report of her death by drowning. (Perhaps this could explain why Gertrude seems so knowledgeable about Ophelia’s gathering of ‘her weedy trophies’.) Although post Cold War Russia is considered to be a democracy, we still view it with suspicion in the West, especially when we recall the mysterious deaths of Georgi Markov and Alexander Litvinenkof.
I found this current production of Hamlet gripping and thought provoking and highly recommend it as the best I have seen. I wonder what Putin would make of it?