Hamlet: Reason Behind the Madness

Posted on January 27th, 2011 by

Madness.  It is the age old, yet continuously disputed, theme in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and it was clearly present in tonight’s production of Hamlet, directed by Nicholas Hytner for London’s National Theatre.  Gazing at the audience with stern eyes, Hamlet, played by Rory Kinnear, glared upon his cohorts, at least at times, with mad intentions.  Similarly, Ruth Negga began her plight as Ophelia with complete sanity; however, her progression into madness ultimately cost her her life.  This theme of madness, although present in the characters and the story line of Hamlet, does not contaminate the brilliant execution of the performance.  It was clear from the first moment, as the buzz from the audience died down, that there was reason behind the madness.

With a script that has endured centuries of interpretation, adaptations, and scrutiny; a script that is considered by the BBC “a must read before you die”; a script that has developed expectations for audiences across the globe, Hytner set himself up for either success or utter failure.  By intermission (two hours in, mind you, with one and half to go), it was clear that his keen eye for detail and inclusion of the Bard’s original language would not disappoint any audience.

In addition to the script, the actors were able to bring their characters to life through a sense of immense believability.  Through David Calder’s excellent rendition of Polonius, a sense of humor was added that, at least for me, is most often forgotten in Hamlet.  Glimpses of humor could also be seen through Hamlet’s bouts of madness – the audience was not ashamed to laugh at a mad man – they were in on the secret, Hamlet was only feigning madness (or was he?).  Aside from the little humor that was present, the performers had the audience encapsulated from the first scene.  With the ghost of King Hamlet walking eerily in from the shadows in Act I, the play’s suspense was set.  Audience members alike could be seen on the edge of their seats for the remainder of the show.  It was not until the final applause began that the sense of tension was released.  By sustaining the tension within the show through multiple character relationships, the believability of each character never faltered.  

Providing the means to create a believable character, the open and mostly bare stage speaks to the skill apparent in the cast.  The focus of the set was merely that of four moveable walls, each wall creating the ability to manipulate the size and depth of the stage.  With nothing to hide behind but their own characterizations, the actors’ movements and facial expressions were never hidden from the audience.  In addition, with the actors themselves contributing to the technology involved in the production, a sense of intimacy was created.  For example, Hamlet lighting his own spotlight for his infamous “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I…” soliloquy, he truly became the only one involved with its delivery; not even the tech crew assisted him.

Although the discussion on whether Hamlet is truly psychologically mad or not is still up for question, there is no question about the sanity of Hytner’s production of Hamlet for it was that of sheer genius.


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