Hamlet for our surveillance age

I just got home from watching the National Theatre (London) production of Hamlet with Rory Kinnear. I saw it at the Spectrum 8 Theatres in Albany, NY, as part of a global broadcast. On the way home, I was thinking about how appropriate a version of Hamlet it was for the times in which we’re living.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in about 1600, when England was an authoritarian state with a highly developed internal security and monitoring system. Surveillance runs throughout the play — from Polonious and Claudius hiding while Hamlet talks with Ophelia, to Polonious listening in the Gertrude’s conversation with Hamlet … and the list goes on. The state of Denmark is preparing for war, or at least the latest phase in a war that seems to be all but ceaseless. Sound familiar?

This production of Hamlet brought that ominous and authoritarian tone even more sharply to the fore. It was set in a modern-day totalitarian state. There were guards everywhere with earpieces, speaking into their wrist microphones. There were cameras and spotlights and bugs and secret passages for eavesdropping. There are rebel forces using throwback AK-47-style weapons arrayed against the might of the state. Everyone is watching everyone else and paranoia is the reigning mental state. There were implements of torture and at least one act of disappearance a la El Salvador.

I’ve seen quite a few productions of Hamlet over the years, including several of the “classics.” My gut reaction to this version tonight is that it was the best I’ve seen and also the best at making the play relevant to a 21st century audience. I highly recommend seeing it if it’s shown in a theater near you.

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