I'd already got a bit of insight into how Hamlet was going to be played out from the talk Nicholas Hytner gave at the National last week but there is always that element of doubt about whether it can be pulled off.
Hytner has gone for a modern setting, nothing new in that, but taking inspiration from the times of heightened suspicion that Shakespeare lived in, he's cranked up the idea of Denmark being some sort of modern surveillance state.
There is security everywhere. Drawing on the large cast to have be-suited, gun-wielding and ear-piece wearing body guards hovering in the background. The large cast, no doubt, being a luxury that the National will not be able to afford when spending cuts bite.
But I digress. Hytner adds layers to the plot lines of characters being asked to spy and report on friends and family, for example, Polonius throws at Ophelia a file of surveillance photo's showing her and Hamlet together. It heightens the tension and puts Hamlet on a different footing.
From the start he is more present and involved in proceedings than other Hamlet's I've seen. There is no laying on the stage or acting out of place to demonstrate his grief and depression. He is a prince who wants to escape the tyranny of the court and go back to the freedom of University but who finds his request at first ignored, then refused by his new step-father.
He is also not afraid to play with his delivery. It takes a certain confidence and understanding to really take your time with certain lines, speaking them as if they represent thoughts that are just forming for the first time.
The soliloquies were all delivered to the audience as if he we were the only people he could work through his thoughts with. But a great Hamlet does not necessarily a great play make and Ruth Negga is the finest and most convincing Ophelia I've seen.
Hytner introduces an idea about Ophelia's death that I'd never considered before. When she is scared off stage by security never to be seen again and then Getrude delivers the description of her death with one eye on her husband the seed is planted that maybe it wasn't a clear cut case of death by misadventure, as it would be described today.
Claire Higgin's Getrude is a woman that seems to have remarried for political reasons, a strong woman but who knows her place which is one step behind the her husband the King. It is interesting that Higgins's Getrude appears to see her dead husband's ghost in the closet scene, only to deny it to Hamlet. Is it then that her suspicions about Claudius are confirmed but she dare not admit it?
Claudius (Patrick Malahide) himself is deliciously cold and machiavellian, stopping at nothing to get what he wants. When Hamlet is finally caught after killing Polonius one of the members of the King's security team starts to carefully open a case presumably full of instruments that will help extract from Hamlet details of where the body is.
And the cherry on the cake, and I'm certain I'm alone in thinking this, was the stage blood. OK it's not a deal breaker on whether I like a play or not but nothing kills the drama of the moment, if you'll excuse the pun, like a bloodless stabbing. Hytner's production had Hamlet drawing (fake) blood which is as it should be when the tone set is sinister and thrilling.
It equalled the RSC/Tennant Hamlet but for very different reasons and so it gets five stars from me.
This was always going to be easy because Rory Kinnear played Laertes to Mr Whishaw's Hamlet back in 2004. But I didn't want to stop at just that so here are a few more which should satisfy Poly:
Ruth Negga was in Criminal Justice with Mr W
Nicholas Hytner directed His Dark Materials at the National in which he had a small role.
And Patrick Malahide who plays Claudius was also in the film Brideshead Revisted playing Charles Ryder's dad in which Ben played Sebastian (they didn't have any scenes together as far as I remember but hey they may have met at rehearsals or the premiere or something)
Not a bad little haul eh?