Thoughts on Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet

Though I should not be awake at this hour, and sleep beckons like a thoughtful friend, I feel it necessary to catalogue my impressions of the live simulcast performance of Hamlet through National Theater Live, now playing in London. Thanks to the lovey Life as a pigeon for inviting me along. The iconic character was undoubtedly in good hands in Cumberbatch who despite the hysteria surrounding him, actually possesses the acting talent to justify at least some of the Cubmerbitches’ obsession. Under the guidance of director Lyndsey Turner and Sonia Friedman Productions, the performance is ghastly with a set of epic proportions.

The play is set in a place outside of time. Victorian and modern clothing mingle in a medley of anachronisms which solves the problem of updating a play that so depends on the lack of technology. One notable inclusion is a David Bowie tee shirt that Hamlet wears which draws parallels between Ziggy Stardust, an extraterrestrial character of Bowie, and Hamlet’s ghost, an otherworldly companion of his son. The lack of time draws viewers in to a fantastical realm with haunting tone. The lack of time is coupled well with a lush set that enhances the visceral setting.

Hamlet’s castle is such an elaborately decorated set piece that it becomes a character in its own right. Before seeing this, I didn’t realize I had the capacity to love a set so much. Clever use of lasers, lighting, and props allow the interior to become a forest and graveyard without interrupting the flow of the action. As the first act closes in a crescendo, Claudius turns his back to the audience and the doors fly open as a hurricane of dirt and detritus consume the once pristine manor. Even more impressive was that the second act is performed in a house rotten, crumbling, and filthy as those who inhabit it. Characters trudge over and crawl through the piles dirt.

Beautifully off-putting ambient music plays over the scene changes which feature the actors moving tables and interacting with each other in character. These dynamic set changes allow for some play outside of the literal text. Though, it may be better in some cases to not see everything. For instance, Ophelia recounts an interaction with Hamlet to Polonious of his love-driven madness; yet the audience is allowed a glimpse of said interaction and it was not as she says. This discredits Ophelia, the woman of her time ruined by her purity, as an obedient girl who exaggerates, overreacts to the world around her.

Later in the play, Ophelia’s madness is portrayed with perhaps too-heavy a hand. I had always been drawn to her character, and I like to think of her as the only undeserved casualty of the play. After Polonious’ death, she looses her primary speech functions, gesturing like a wounded animal towards the piano imploring Laertes to play. Despite the first half of the scene, her end was fitting. Barefoot, stumbling over debris, she finds a white light flowing from off stage and like an apparition, slowly disappears. This nod further highlights the uncanny tone of the production.

Cumberbatch plays a Hamlet that seemed younger and more dynamic than others, perhaps in part because his celebrity would draw a similarly young audience. He jumps on tables, and flits from one area to the next as he delivered lines with the dry, sharp wit reminiscent of Sherlock. He deftly shifts between dramatic and withdrawn, mad and clear without the character feeling forced. In his interview before the performance, Cumberbatch discusses finding the need to say each line, no matter how famous; during the performance each word jumps from his lips as if it were the first time he had thought of them. He was hilarious and frightening, and I was delighted to see the play come to life through him.

That enthusiasm, at times, borders on camp. During Hamlet’s madness, he dresses as a drummer and parades around in a wild manner. This outrageous display not only reduces the expertly crafted tone, but may to obviously create a border between Hamlet’s act and psyche. Despite this, the production avoids making decisions on behalf of the audience, and as such the little drummer boy act does not fully absolve Hamlet from his own spiraling despair no matter how fake his pretend craziness seems. I admit, I did laugh and it did remind me how much fun Cumberbatch was having in this role. Few actors could pull this feat off without derailing the entire play.

Jim Norton is an excellent Polonius. This is a character sometimes overlooked, yet one comes to love this bumbling, poignant old fool. He so sincerely believes in his world view and decisions that it’s easy to empathize with his hardships; though his death may have been a tad anticlimactic, the character is a joy to watch. Conversely, Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius is ruthless yet multi-faceted. He obviously cares for Gertrude and he seems like a competent leader.

What strikes me most about this play is the gothic tone and mysticism it put forth coupled with excellent acting and scenery. I had the chance to expand my understanding of Hamlet, and came to find that I very much like the idea of a ghasy Hamlet; almost a horror story. I’m going to see it again with other friends and I’m certain I’ll notice new things about it. I’m so happy that through the live streaming program, I have the opportunity to see live theatre easily. I forgot is was live at times, but as the actors took their bows, they mentioned that everyone watching was participating in a worldwide event. Just that makes the tickets worthwhile.

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