Hamlet, NT Olivier, London
Hamlet, Crucible, Sheffield
Enlightenment, Hampstead Theatre, London

Two star-name Hamlets at once was bound to invite comparisons. Simm's Prince was patchy, but Rory Kinnear was superb

It's getting to be like that scene in Spartacus.

"This is I, Hamlet the Dane." "No, I am Hamlet the Dane." "No, I am ..." How many Princes of Denmark can there be? We had Jude Law, last year, following hot on the heels of David Tennant: both scintillating. There was Jonathan Miller's Bristol staging as well, which made Jamie Ballard's name. Now here come two more stars – the NT's Rory Kinnear and John Simm at the Crucible.

Yet the role is so infinitely mercurial, the variations are what's fascinating. Certainly, Nicholas Hytner's modern-dress Hamlet at the NT proves gripping and full of sharp insights.

In the grey neoclassical chambers of Elsinore, the regime run by the usurper, Claudius, is rife with surveillance and image conscious speech-making. Patrick Malahide's lean and sleek-suited Claudius, looking uncannily like Vladimir Putin, is a calculating bureaucrat with military backing. Armed security men, with earpieces, hover in every doorway – no sustained privacy allowed.

In his head office, Malahide delivers his first royal pronouncement – on marrying his brother's widow – as a stage-managed public broadcast. He smooth-talks, to camera, while Gertrude (the ever superb Clare Higgins) smiles awkwardly at his side – screeching with relief and grabbing some champers as soon as it's a wrap.

Kinnear's bereaved Hamlet stands in a corner, shocked and fuming, though neatly dressed (black suit, white shirt). When he speaks out – his escape back to Wittenberg University having been thwarted – he is caustic. When alone he fights back tears.

This actor doesn't have the lithe sparkiness of Tennant, but he can be explosive and is always penetratingly intelligent. His lunacy is clearly a mocking act, switched on and off. At the same time, those antics spring from depression as he plays suicidal with Polonius, rising from his unmade bed like a ghoul, wrapped in a duvet. Alone, his philosophising is quietly, brilliantly lucid as he thinks through "To be or not to be," occasionally puffing on a cigarette.

Though Hytner and others have staged Elizabethan political dramas with contemporary suits and televised broadcasts before now, this Hamlet is often cleverly innovative. His cast work closely on their lines, and between them, to add twists and explore how far the totalitarian culture might impinge on these private lives. So David Calder's Polonius has had Ruth Negga's Ophelia and Hamlet under observation. He waves a file of photographs at his mortified daughter. When she goes troublesomely insane, we see her surreptitiously purged by Claudius's henchmen. Therefore Gertrude's poetic account, to Laertes, of his sister's drowning is an elaborate cover-up, uttered under pressure with Higgins shooting bitter glances at Claudius and slugging whisky. Some of these novel takes are strained, and not all the supporting roles remain strong. Considerable tragic poignancy is lost too, as this Hamlet is more livid than loving toward his womenfolk. But all in all, outstanding.

In contrast, John Simm's Hamlet is most touching in his tenderness towards Michelle Dockery's Ophelia, kissing her as if forgiving her paternally enforced aloofness without a second thought. In other respects he's less electrifying, and Paul Miller's slow-moving production – similarly in modern dress and set in a grey neoclassical palace – is no competition for Hytner's.

Simm's verse-speaking skills are respectable, though, and his high-pitched voice makes him sound as if he's still an angst-ridden youth. Yet it's neither endearing nor persuasive. The problem is that his emotional intensity comes and goes. Every so often he burns brightly, with flashes of loathing and despair.

His philosophical soliloquies – delivered to the audience, holding a book – hover between heartfelt confession and mini-lecture. Woefully, however, Dockery's delivery is terrible: rushed, flat, nothing heartfelt, mere words, words, words. Barbara Flynn's Gertrude has none of her counterpart Higgins's rich detailing, though John Nettles's Claudius is more interesting than the arid Malahide, being expansively affable and amorous, only gradually worn down – by Hamlet's hostilities – to reveal his nasty side. By the way, there's another big-name Hamlet on the horizon. Michael Sheen next year at the Young Vic.

Meanwhile, Enlightenment marks a new dawn for Hampstead Theatre, after a pretty dismal patch. This new play by Shelagh Stephenson is the first production by the venue's new artistic director and potential saviour, Edward Hall. Alas, it seems we'll have to hold out a bit longer for a blinding success.

Stephenson's scenario sounds engrossing enough. The 20-year-old son of a British, middle-class couple has vanished into thin air. He went backpacking, and they've heard nothing for months. He may have been kidnapped, fallen down a ravine, or chosen to disappear. His mother, Julie Graham's Lia, is grief-stricken and increasingly irrational, drawn in by a psychic (feeble comedy) and an even more morally suspect documentary-maker (caricatured conniver).

The young man who eventually returns is mentally damaged and there's at least one sociopath under Lia's roof. Enlightenment does, belatedly, develop into a disturbing web of lies. But Hall's white ovoid set with electric-blue lighting hardly generates domestic authenticity. When Stephenson's characters discuss liberal guilt, her dialogue often sounds like a string of authorial jottings: "There's a Bermuda triangle where materialism and capitalism meet the fatal concept of good taste" and so forth. Worse is Lia's appended analogy from physics, the theory of non-locality about diverging particles: a dire case of science superficially applied.

'Hamlet' (020-7452 3000) to 27 Oct then touring in 2011, it will be broadcast in participating cinemas on 9 Dec; 'Hamlet' (0114 249 6000) to 23 Oct; 'Enlightenment' (020-7722 9301) to 30 Oct

Next Week:

Kate Bassett hangs out with Aristotle Onassis in a new biodrama

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

    Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit