22 Mar 2018

Words, words, words - Review: Hamlet (National Theatre Live) with Benedict Cumberbatch

I first discovered the National Theatre Live experience a few years ago when I watched Mary Shelley's Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle, starring surprise, surprise Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. I was so mesmerized by it, not long after I bought another ticket to watch the same play again (Benedict and Jonny exchanged roles Frankenstein/Creature each night and this time I watched the other version).

Back then I had to take a train and travel two and a half hours to reach the venue, but it was worth it. Guess what? I watched Hamlet in my own city! NTLive is spreading all over Europe and that's great news! (For more info about NTLive go here: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/)
https://i.pinimg.com/originals/cc/70/82/cc7082f94920f5f22ed8cf400ae5faad.jpg I'd been meaning to watch Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch (or HamletBatch as some call it) for some time but could never make it for some reason or another. One time I even had the ticket for a screening in Budapest, but the person I would have gone with cancelled and something got in the way for me too.

When I saw there would be a screening in my little town, I was determined to be there. I went with my mum who, I'm happy to report, enjoyed it too despite the fact she doesn't speak English (there were subtitles which made it possible for her to delight in the performance too).

I've been a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch since the beginning of Sherlock, before the time he became truly famous. I love and respect him because not only is he a good actor, he is also a nice human being who has to this day remained very humble about all his achievements. He was one of the main attractions for me, I won't lie.

The other reason I was eager to go was the simple fact that I'm a Shakespeare geek and Hamlet is my favourite tragedy by the Bard. I practically grew up on Shakespeare plays. Let's just say I'm the 90's kid who knew who Kenneth Branagh was before the second Harry Potter film came out.

Now you know my reasons, let's see some of my highlights about the performance: 

 by William Shakespeare
Dir.: Lyndsey Turner
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

Before we saw the actual play they showed us part of an interview with Benedict in which the interviewer asked him what he usually felt after the performance was over. His reply: 'I feel tired and hungry' (See the whole of said interview here). It's a very funny response and he himself couldn't help but smile at his own answer but the thing is, it's no wonder he felt hunger after each performance. 
He basically didn't stop for a moment on stage: he ran around like a madman he feigned to be the whole time, shouting sentences, he climbed on tables, ran up and down staircases, you name it. He never stopped being on the move, which made the whole role physically challanging for him. Despite this he always held his act together, the man is an energy bomb.
 The first thing that took my breath away was the set.
It looks like a proper film set, doesn't it? We are inside the castle in a great hall that serves as dining room in the beginning, office to discuss military matters later, a courtyard or the Queen's chamber. It is a wonderfully designed set, beautiful to look at and well utilized too. One of my favourite parts was when Hamlet, Horatio and the two gurads used the little passage on the top of the stares as if it were the battlement of the castle to look down at the ghost who stood below them.

'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.'
 Marcellus, Act I Scene IV

In the second act they added only one thing to the picture: the ground was covered in rubbles. It symbolized the destruction of life and forecasted the tragedy at the end, how both youth and future would crumble into dust. To make the second act more foreboding they also dimmed the lights; this part was much darker altogether than the beginning. I liked the contrast they created.

'Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.'
Polonius, Act II Scene II
I approved of the balance they found between modern and old in the play. Since the set with the paintings and weaponry displayed on the walls satisfied my all-time yearning for 'old Shakespeare', I didn't mind all the modern details they hid along the way. (I rarely enjoy modernized Shakespeare I'm afraid, I guess it's a matter of taste.) Here old was mixed with new and so everyone could find something to their liking in it.

Actually sometimes modern silliness was compared with old value, which perked me up. For example when Hamlet compares the portraits of his father and Claudius, the object that holds Claudius's likeness is a cheesy plate (you know those plates you can buy in souvenir shops, that have the Royal family members painted on them...), while Hamlet's father is depicted on a painting that hangs on the wall. In this case our own present society's ditasteful and garish habits were riduculed and belittled in the light of the value of the past.
Other times modernity revealed a bright side; it became the source of humour (not the object of it). Like when Hamlet put on this jacket over his David Bowie T-shirt and was ready to be called the live embodiment of pop-culture, then turned around and we saw the following:


The rest of the time however, 20th century objects were used not to make us laugh, but to represent the characters' connection to the past; most objects held memories. In the beginning of the performance the music that Hamlet plays on the recorder helps him get into a nostalgic mood. While listening to music he looks at pictures of his late father. Ophelia carries a camera on her person every time she appears and the only thing that remains after her death is a chest full of photographs. During the plate/painting comparision I mentioned before, Hamlet recalls what a great man his father was and scolds her mother for fogetting this. The Dawid Bowie tribute above speaks for itself...

This game of old and new kept me entertained.

'Give him heedful note; 
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgements join
In censure of his seeming.'
Hamlet to Horatio, Act III Scene II
The Mousetrap Scene in which Hamlet tricks his uncle into admitting his crime against Hamlet's late father was taken to another level. The actors started to play The Murder of Gonzago on a little stage set up for the royal party and first we saw only the backs of Caludius and the Queen. We only learned how they reacted to the play through Hamlet's remarks.

However, when the most important part came, the presentation of the murder itself, the actors moved off the small stage and put themselves between the royal party and the audience. The murder came off the stage, as it was commited in the reality of the play too. It was an ingenious decision of the director, just like the next step: it was Hamlet who poured the poison in the ear of the actor-father, which means for a moment he took on Claudius's role. Throughout the play he contemplates the idea of becoming a murderer himself and this was like a rehearsal of the act that was to come. Amazing choices and great execution, I say.

Hamlet: Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
Gravedigger: Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it's no great matter there.
Hamlet: Why?
Gravedigger: 'Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.
Act V Scene I
You think Hamlet is a sad play? No, no, not all of it, at least; there is comedy in there, plentiful. The whole cinema was laughing at parts. Like when Hamlet stood on a table talking to Polonius and did the funny Monty Python walk. Or when the gravedigger casually started throwing skulls out of the grave as if they were baseballs. Shakespeare's incredible lines were only fuel to the fire.
 'The time is out of joint; O crused spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!'
Hamlet, Act I Scene V

Benedict was a very sensitive and emotional Hamlet. It suited him. He has this gesture where he brings his hands to his face: it's a simple act, yet it speaks volumes of one's emotional state. He used it many times to express desperation and grief. In Hamlet (well, in any other Shakespeare play, really) the protagonist has a social existance (in dialogues) and an inner existence (in monologues). Benedict's Hamlet was energetic when he was not alone and shared his thoughts with the audience with an high-burning, yet consciously controlled passion when he had the spotlight. I was with Hamlet through all his struggles and pains.

I was half happy half not with the rest of the casting choices. Leo Bill as Horatio just didn't work for me. I didn't feel the companionship between him and Hamlet, he was more of a buddy to him than a true friend and confidant. His 'costume' (plaid shirt and an ever-present backpack – he looked like he was about to move in or out of a college dormitory) also marked him as an outsider somehow. Sian Brooke's Ophelia didn't make a strong impression on me either unfortunately. Mad Ophelia was twitchy and fidgety. Her madness was significant, yet she was insignificant in her madness. I'd have preferred a bigger show of her insanity, instead I got a withdrawn creature who was almost apologetic in her gestures for uttering words of grief.

Ciarán Hinds' Claudius was very powerful. He had a collected presence on stage. Claudius was a commandig figure, conscious in his acts, never wavering. This is how I imagine Claudius, although perhaps he could have been a bit more evil in his speech, in his gestures to make himself a bit more unlikable.

I also liked the Queen, played by Anastasia Hille. Her empathetic and repentant Gertrude was spot on. The royal couple was good in general.

The ending was a bit rushed but that's something I can forgive. There is a lot of action packed in the last scene, things happen fast in the play too. I absolutely loved how the contrast of Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and Hamlet's skin signalled their different sides, but at the same time their companionship in revenge. Laertes and Hamlet are each other's equal, like chess pieces on two sides of the board. I'll go further, they are virtually the same person facing the same dilemma. Their forgiving each other before dying can be interpreted as Hamlet forgiving himself for committing murder.

That's it folks. Sorry for over-analyzing but as you can see I adored this version of Hamlet.

Actually, I'm planning to turn 'Words, words, words' into a series of posts (a LOT shorter posts, haha) in which I'll write about anything and everything Shakespeare (film adaptations, theatrical performances, character types or whatever I feel like writing about in connection with Shakespeare). 

If you have a favourite Shakespeare play, adaptation etc. and you'd like to read my opinion about it, let me know and I'll make sure to write a post featuring it.

Also, I kinda wanted to write about the perks of watching an NTLive production but this post was too long already and I decided not to include them. I might write a separate one with that topic, if you are interested.

What do you think? Would you be happy to read other posts like this?

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