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NT-Live review: ‘Hamlet’ (Rory Kinnear) & National Theatre celebrations

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On 22nd October 1964, the National Theatre opened in London with a production of Hamlet directed by Laurence Olivier with Peter O’Toole in the title role. Last night, exactly fifty years later, NT-Live celebrated with an ‘encore’ performance of the same play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, with Rory Kinnear as Hamlet.

Hamlet and Polonius The production is quite simply the best Hamlet we have ever seen. Hytner’s Denmark is a modern surveillance state, not dissimilar to the Elizabethan state in which the play was first performed. Polonius makes a convincing Sir Francis Walsingham, with his updated Elizabethan spies having the paraphernalia of a modern dictatorship: security men with mobile phones; bugged bibles; surveillance cameras; etc. Polonius’s  pauses, (for example on ‘To they own self be true”) shows he is aware of the conflict between the personal and the political.

This environment provides the perfect backdrop to make sense of Hamlet’s indecision.hamlet-ophelia No longer the melancholic, indecisive, student, but a prince trying to play his game in a politically complex and paranoid environment. Rory Kinnear’s performance grows in strength into an extraordinarily powerful performance.

The production is over three years old and has been well-reviewed. For those interested, the UK newspapers have all covered the production. You can find reviews from The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Independent.



What has been less well covered is the impact of NT-Live techniques on the impact of the production. It seems quite clear that the audience experience at an NT-Live cinema showing is better than the experience of a live audience at the National. Of course one loses the immediacy of being part of a live audience, though much of that is retained, particularly at ‘live’ rather than ‘encore’ broadcasts.

But what one gains impacts the experience enormously – the subtler, dark, moody lighting available in the cinema broadcast. Hamlet’s soliloques enriched by his facial movements brought to the cinema audience with close-ups, and available at best, to the front two or three rows at the National, contrasted with wide-angle views of the theatre set when appropriate. Close-ups of Claudius too, allowed Patrick Malahide to use facial movements to express his complex emotions in the A3S3 prayer scene.

Although the technology brings enormous benefits, it also brings its niggles. The encore performance last night was marred by quite a few. The whispered tones of the broadcast production manager could be heard as an undertone for the first quarter of the performance: “cut to camera 3… now camera 8” etc is not the sort of commentary to enhance a Hamlet soliloquy. And the sound had an annoying habit of cutting out for a second or two every now and again, usually, and thankfully, not when someone was speaking. And there was a technical interrupt to the performance of about 5 minutes, which made the audience pretty restless. These are not things I’ve noticed at other NT-Live performances so hopefully they were glitches which won’t affect most NT-Live performances, and if they are unavoidable, they are a small price to pay for the ability to see such high quality productions outside London.


And this Hamlet broadcast is only part of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Coming up shortly for your delight are a number of shows worth looking out for:

  • On Thursday (24th October) the BBC are broadcasting a two-part documentary Arena: The National Theatre at 9:00pm on BBC4, no doubt shortly to find itself on PBS in the USA
  • ‘50 years on stage’, a once in a lifetime performance will be broadcast live on BBC Two on Saturday, 2nd November, and broadcast to the rest of the world via NT-Live’s cinema network on the same day
  • ‘The Hour’, a film that follow NT actors as they prepare to go online is available now from The Guardian web-site.


Some of these events are UK-based, but many are available via the Internet, or the NT-Live cinema network (see our Global Theatre Event Diary). We’ll update the Global Theatre Event Diary as we become aware of more events. You can also find cinemas near you for NT-Live, RSC, and The Globe, broadcasts.


Keep visiting your cinema to see live broadcasts from the UK’s top theatre companies!!!



Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’


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