More cross-platform arts. This time, Hamlet, live from the National Theatre, beamed into cinemas, in our case, the Curzon Mayfair. What a superb initiative. I will give you my opinion of Rory Kinnear’s Dane in a moment. First, a couple of practical concerns: the Mayfair is a glorious cinema, with a huge, 311-seat main screen, and a more intimate, 103-seat second screen. I saw White Ribbon in Screen One here last year, in the afternoon, and it ensured my experience of the film was about as effective and memorable as it could have been. I also hosted the Lost Q&A here last year, to a packed house of nerds, and the place really buzzes when it’s full. When we booked Hamlet, it was showing in Screen One. Unfortunately, in the interim, a charity gala premiere of The King’s Speech was booked into Screen One, and Hamlet was bumped into Screen Two. Because of the gala, with red carpet, barriers, press and people milling about in the lobby in smart coats, the bar was closed, so we couldn’t get a drink beforehand.
We could have done with one, as we were sat next to a party of three adults, a man and two women, who spent the whole of the build-up to the play playing on their BlackBerries, ignoring the pre-show film about the history of Hamlet, which was very interesting. I had to tell them to turn their phones off, as the bright, torch-like screens were in my eyeline. They did so. And then … after Hamlet had started, during the key opening scenes with the ghost of his father, they got them out again. I asked them to put them away, again. They did so, for the duration this time. What is the point of spending over the odds to see a live theatre production in a cinema and texting people? I can understand it when it’s idiot kids who know no better and have paid a few quid to be somewhere that isn’t outside, but these were grown adults! (During Act II, they munched from a massive box of popcorn. Yes, I know it’s on sale at the cinema, but this was a dramatic play, not a noisy blockbuster. During a knife’s edge soliloquy, you don’t want to hear the mouse-like rustling of hands going into popcorn and the popcorn being masticated. I put up with it.) Anyway, niggles over.
The production itself was magnificent. I speak as someone who has only seen Hamlet on film, never live, so I may be an unreliable witness – although the notices do seem to be positive – but Rory Kinnear really did make me understand the play for the first time. It is Nick Hytner’s production, and much of the appreciation must go in his direction: the decision to set it in a modern police state was very clever, and even Hamlet’s soliloquys were attended by shady men in suits with earpieces in, lurking in the dark. We get a recording device in a bible, paperwork being pushed across desks, camera crews filming Fontibras at the front … on a mostly bare stage, with lights and other props being moved around by the cast, and much of the action lit by torches and spotlights, and Hamlet’s dad’s ghost a truly unsettling grey apparition, this is atmospheric stuff indeed. Kinnear gives a smart interpretation of the Prince – an ordinary guy in a hoodie, with a smiley face drawn on his t-shirt to represent his duplicitously, villainous uncle, feigning madness with lots of comic business, that is both funny and disturbing. I noticed that he and David Calder as Polonious, used pauses very effectively, as if they were mouthing the words before saying them; quite a revelation from the more formal Shakespeares I saw as a schoolboy.
We never studied Hamlet, but it amazes me how much of it you just sort of know: the basic plot, the key markers like the gravedigger scene, and the speeches. I can almost recite “To be or not to be,” without ever having read the Brodie’s Notes. The whole thing made me retroactively despise Kenneth Branagh’s frilly and overwrought film version.
It’s unusual seeing a play, being performed live, at the cinema, with crowd murmuring beforehand, and Emma Freud popping up at the beginning and the end to top and tail it (this was being beamed not just around the UK, but across the world), but, as with Sleeping Beauty, there are advantages to close-ups you would never see from Row G of the National, and to – very sparing – camera cuts, which help to block out the action. I’m sure theatre purists would say it’s a poor substitute, but I am not one. I saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the National in 2004, and was impressed by it – another production on a bare stage with minimal scenery – but I don’t go to the theatre often, unless it is to see ballet or a musical, which I feel are better value for money! I feel rather privileged to have seen Kinnear, and Calder, and Clare Higgins, and Patrick Malahide, fretting and strutting while I sat in a cinema in Mayfair, and other people sat in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and others again in the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston, and elsewhere. Yes, we clapped at the end!
Worth checking out NT Live for future events of this nature. It’s a top idea. Just make sure you see don’t sit next to popcorn-munching, texting fuckwits. (Of course, if it had been in Screen One, as advertised, we could have easily moved, but in Two, we were trapped.)
Oh, and I saw Colin Firth on his way into the toilets as I left. One advantage to sharing the cinema was a charity gala.