Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, directed by Lyndsey Turner, and produced by National Theatre (part of National Theatre Live): seen October 15, 2015
Acting (and by extension, theatre) is all about choices. As someone who’s dabbled on the performance side myself, both as an actor and as a director, I know how much choice goes into a production. For Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the choices made during production can change the meaning of the whole play. Is Hamlet crazy or just pretending or starts out as one and leads into the other? Scholars have been debating that for years, after all. But it extends beyond just Hamlet: is Gertrude implicit in the murder of the king? Is Ophelia truly in love with Hamlet? Or are both of them victims of their feminine circumstances and actually have no choices in their action? And – at least in this version – does Claudius ever feel guilt for murdering his brother?
Directing choices also impact the play: is it set in the time and place intended by Shakespeare? If not, why and how will it reflect what the production is trying to say? Much has been made of this production’s choice in previews to move the “To be or not to be” speech to the beginning, which definitely changes the interpretation. It’s not back where it belongs, but has been moved further along.
Speaking of that popular soliloquy, what is that but the deliberation of the ultimate choice we all have? As someone who’s had suicidal thoughts myself (and as someone who knew someone who committed the act), Cumberbatch’s presentation of it made me remember/recognize the many reasons I pulled back myself, and how my feelings about the relative cowardness/braveness of the act are extremely complex.
Casting also impacts the production, as Hamlet – being fresh out of college – needs to reflect that. As much as I like Benedict Cumberbatch, one of my biggest problems when I heard about this production was that I felt he was too old for the role. After all, part of Hamlet’s waffling comes from the fact that he’s at that age where we all are trying to figure out who we are and what we want to do with our life, those life choices that mean something different 15 – 20 years later. (I know – casting someone older isn’t new – recently, there’s also the David Tennant version, but I still haven’t seen that one. And don’t get me started on the whole kerfuffle the various media made of the ‘choice’ to cast a well-known celebrity in the role, ‘using’ Cumberbatch’s fame – especially with the young ladies – to promote the piece, as that’s a whole different editorial right there.)
Even the choice to DO Hamlet means something. I’ll admit: my other biggest problem is that I’m not a huge fan of the play. I feel it’s been overdone, it’s too long, and the older I get, the more whiny Hamlet comes across. And, as was mentioned in the pre-show interview with Cumberbatch, there’s the fact that it’s one of the most quoted (and performed) pieces of literature out there. No matter what the director and actor do, there will always be the ghost of other productions influencing it, whether it’s Branaugh’s god-awful long version or the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s humorous take on it. As is wonderfully approached in the season one story arc of the TV show Slings & Arrows, everyone thinks they know the speeches, especially “To be or not to be”, and watches with a sense of schadenfreude waiting for a dropped line.
The play starts with the curious choice of the pre-show-into-show music of Nat King Cole’s version of “Nature Boy”. But looking over the lyrics, maybe not so curious. After all:
There was a boy / A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far / Very far, over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye / But very wise was he
Cumberbatch takes the ‘antic disposition’ up to 11, even before the plan to appear crazy. Again, the pre-show interview made a joke about how much weight the man has lost during this production, and you thoroughly understand this question once you see how active he is. He is almost constantly in motion, running about at times or just acting like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands at others. This both works and doesn’t work for him. As anyone who’s familiar with Cumberbatch’s turn in Cabin Pressure knows, he does comedy very well – and so when he does the crazy bit, it’s with a tongue-in-cheek sense of comic timing that reminds you that Shakespeare was an expert of lightening up his tragedies with the occasional comedic bits.
But there are times he goes too broad, in my opinion. Part of what draws me to being a fan of Cumberbatch is that his acting is typically very subtle: he does best in the small things, the quiet moments. There were points when I felt it turned from drama into melodrama, especially when he punches the ‘country matters’ line to Ophelia, giving a ‘hey, that’s a dirty joke’ nod after. I halfway expected him to follow it up with a, “Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.”
The perfect example of how he does small best is in the soliloquies. While yes, he does a fine job in the above-mentioned “To be or not to be”, it’s his “What a piece of work is man” where I feel he hits it out of the park. He gives the speech a quiet thoughtfulness that brings the play to a deliberate pause that acknowledges the snarky sentiment of the speech while recognizing the truth behind it.
The pacing both helps and hurts. For the most part, the play is extremely tight. Kudos to director Lyndsey Turner, as the four hour running time flies past. However, it flounders a bit when the director has some of the soliloquies happen with the other actors in slow motion. While it works maybe once, it feels cliched by the end of the production, especially during the somewhat mediocre fencing/fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith).
Of course, Cumberbatch isn’t the only actor on stage making choices. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude seems to not know which side she’s on. Siân Brooke’s Ophelia being a photographer adds to the ‘remembrances’ angle of her relationship. I admit: I giggled at the – I guess you could call it a shoutout? – confusing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Gertrude and Claudius (Ciarán Hinds). And I personally loved the choice of when Jim Norton’s Polonius gets ready to give his advice to Laertes, he pulls out a notebook as if he has to get out all the advice at once, none of it original.
Tech, for the most part, was good, although we had some ongoing issues with the mics that were a bit too much for a professional production. The scene changes were fluid, and the set and lighting was astronomically wonderful.
Hamlet the character is all about choices. Does he follow his mother’s wishes and not return to school, but knowing he is in a home where he is not welcome? Does he then choose to follow his dead father’s wish to revenge? Who can he trust, once he makes his decision? But it’s also about the lack of choice. How much of his decisions in the play are him being bound by obligation, and therefore no choice at all?
One thing I do know – while I was hesitant to watch this, the only draw for me was the fact that it was Cumberbatch in the main role, I am glad I chose to watch it. And while not perfect, the production definitely made some fascinating choices that made me not regret going.
If you didn’t choose to watch Hamlet but want to now, National Theatre does plan on encores of the filmed production starting October 22. For more information, visit their website. And, if you’re lucky enough to be in the UK (or close enough), it plays at the Barbican Centre until October 31, and you might have a chance for tickets. More information on that can be found at the Barbican’s website.