The Politics of Deceit in Hamlet

The National Theatre Live in Owen Sound

The secret service walked back and forth talking into their sleeves, never speaking to anyone and never spoken to; never in the way, but never out of it either. Unobtrusive but omnipresent, they watched and listened and whispered. Protective and threatening both, like they could go either way and turn on you if you said the wrong thing or looked at them the wrong way. When they drew their guns you were never sure until it was all over who it was they really wanted to shoot.

The Prince was clearly under suspicion. Everyone watched everyone. The secret service agent who tailed him, the king who reigned by power and compulsion, his friends who would have killed him, even his girlfriend, although she was put up to it. For he was a threat to important people. The place reeked of plots and counterplots, intrigue, treachery and deceit. Clearly something was very rotten in the state of Denmark.

Rory Kinnear in NT's 'Hamlet'

The National Theatre’s (that’s the National Theatre in London England) production of Hamlet had barely started but already the stage was thick with conspiracies and a gnawing dread that stayed with you for the next four hours. From the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalking the parapets to the making of Hamlet’s ghost by the trick of a poisoned point, the silent lurking men in suit jackets underscored the deception and diplomatic duplicity that Shakespeare has woven into the plot and the characters. Wikileaks in real time.

Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet was a Hamlet for the times: a reasonable man feigning unreason to survive a paranoid, secretive government. He lives to serve a higher purpose – to avenge the murder of his father. By all accounts Hamlet is a good man: honest, caring, intelligent and above all, civilized. But how many good men have we seen fall to the brutish bluster of Legislatures, Congresses and Commons and to the plots of their leaders’ minions?

Hamlet is a play about the corruption of the ideals of the Renaissance. It could as easily be about the erosion of democracy. Shakespeare shows how quickly wisdom can descend to platitude, courage to treachery, discipline to indulgence, justice to revenge, and rule of law to lawless rule. “The world’s grown honest,” says Rosencrantz, already a spy for Claudius. “Then is doomsday near,” says Hamlet.

And yet it is a play about people too: real, three dimensional and imperfect, and this production drew them whole, warts and all. I have seen Polonius played the prating fool, but in this Hamlet, he is wise as well. Ophelia and Laertes smirk as their father goes on (and on) with advice to his departing son: “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

What father has not been tempted to offer, unasked, the same sort of advice? What son has not ignored it? Better just to recite Polonius’ speech to Laertes, shake hands and have done with it. Laertes nevertheless attends to the wisdom behind the platitudes. We see that he does and we understand why the old fool is also a valued counsellor to a King.

Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet is not quite the rash, sassy, conflicted but utterly moral youth that I think Shakespeare had in mind; but not so old that he couldn’t pull it off in the end, and without irony or corruption of his “noble heart.” Sure everyone ends badly, but hey, it’s William Shakespeare not Walt Disney.

The director, Nicholas Hytner, employed modern dress and a relatively spare but suggestive set that kept out of the way of the words. He used modern dress in a way that brought the play closer to us without looking and sounding anachronistic as so many attempts to modernize Shakespeare do. Hytner knows that Shakespeare will always be modern and this production looked and sounded as William must have intended.

That it looked like a movie was not because the performers were playing to the cameras that were stationed among the audience, the director switching from one to the other on the fly during the performance. In fact, the actors were directed to play to the live audience, not the cameras. It was that the direction and the acting were so good. So good in fact, that the play arrived from London England as fresh as if it had been written the day before.

When the old is made new, you know you’re watching pros. As I overheard a woman say at the intermission: “This is the first time I’ve understood everything. I mean, really understood, everything.”

This is the second season for the National Theatre Live ( Each play is taped and broadcast so that we see it in Owen Sound the same day and time it was performed live. So far I’ve seen Phedre with Helen Mirran (the set alone was worth the price of admission), All’s Well that Ends Well, The Habit of Art (about WH Auden and Benjamin Brittain), London Assurance and A Disappearing Number. Counting Hamlet these are the six best things I’ve seen on a stage, and I’ve seen quite a lot.

I saw three productions in Toronto where they sold out two theatres. Three I saw in Owen Sound along with maybe 25 others, This I don’t understand. I mean $22.54 is a lot cheaper than a flight to London. And the National Theatre is, after all, the premier theatre of the English speaking world. Maybe it’s because the Galaxy doesn’t advertise, but then, I don’t understand that either. More information and events at

December 10, 2010
© David McLaren

Yorick's skull


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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