Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Hamlet. Dir. Robin Lough. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Sian Brooke, Leo Bill, Ciarán Hinds, Anastasia Hille, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jim Norton, Karl Johnson, Matthew Steer, Rudi Dharmalingam, and Ruairi Monaghan. 2015. Simulcast. National Theatre Live, 15 October 2016 and 15 November 2016.

I wish I had a lot more time at my disposal to tease out my thoughts on this production more fully. While we're at it, I wish that a DVD release of this film were coming soon.

Instead, I have a backlog of rough drafts to get back to students . . . and I'm not sure that the National Theatre Live is prioritizing getting its holdings out on DVD.

Therefore, I'd just like to get a few thoughts out there–and please feel free to join the conversation.

Benedict Cumberbatch was quite a marvelous Hamlet. His Hamlet is intelligent and immature, capricious and calculating, lucid and incomprehensible. He delivers the lines exceedingly well—having just thought of them, he delivers them to us. His is a very in-the-moment Hamlet, and that brings out a great deal in the play.

The production itself made a lot of interesting choices—many of which succeed admirably and many of which fall flat.

The overarching impression I took away from the play was that its stagecraft was marvelous. The production's greatest strength, in fact, is not Cumberbatch but the stagecraft. It was tight and fast and meticulous and gigantic.

The acting of the rest of the cast was very uneven. Indeed, I learned that a truly remarkable Hamlet can't make a production successful overall. It enabled me to realize that one of the great things about the Kevin Kline Hamlet is that every single person in the cast is at the very top of the game.

Those generalizations arise out of these specific points:
  • The opening is intriguing. We skip the usual opening with the soldiers' (and Horatio) viewing of the ghost, but we get the lines. Hamlet is listening to an LP of Nat King Cole (a theme that comes back periodically through the film) when he hears a noise. "Who's there?" he cries.
    "Nay, answer me," he demands. A bit later, Horatio enters and they have an exchange about Horatio coming back from Wittenberg (but not a conversation about any ghosts that might be in the offing). The effect of this is to give us a Hamlet that is almost exclusively from Hamlet's perspective.
  • During a couple of soliloquies, this Hamletcentric theme is developed; the rest of the cast goes into slow motion while Hamlet tells us his thoughts. It was an effective device, not overused.
  • The ghost was quite tremendous. He sounded a lot like Lawrence Olivier—the same catches in his voice from time to time. The actor doubled as the gravedigger, and gave us a marvelously funny performance there.
  • Claudius and Gertrude were not very good. Indeed, I was quite struck with Claudius' one-level ranting at one particular point in the play. Hamlet had just said to the players, "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" and "O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably." Enter Claudius who does just that.
  • We don't get to know Ophelia too well—I think primarily because the play centers on Hamlet's perspective.
  • Horatio is played as an outsider—something of a hipster, I suppose.  At one point, he comes in complaining about people buying commemorative plates with Claudius' picture on them (while obviously having bought one himself.  I guess he bought his ironically, so that makes it okay.
  • Polonius and Ophelia have no sympathy. I wondered why she would be upset at the death of someone so distant—but it made me wonder if she was upset because she felt such relief and freedom at her father's death—and if guilt from that was part of what drove her mad.
  • The text was modernized here and there, and some lines were simply added to it. When they did that, they did try to make the lines iambic. Some modernization made sense, but others did not. Why would Gertrude need to say "cast thy nightly color off" instead of "nighted color"? And, in all my years of teaching Hamlet, I've never had a student ask, "What do they mean by 'jump at this dead hour?'" Does it need changing to "just at this dead hour" for clarity?
  • Ophelia starts to write a note to Hamlet in the middle of the nunnery scene. Great choice—but there was no follow-through. I was hoping Hamlet or Claudius would chance upon the note and know that Ophelia is either more (in the first case) or less (in the second) to be trusted.
  • Hamlet's madness was played as a person trying to act like a comedy would think lunatic would act. Cumberbatch played it well, but it wasn't a subtle choice, and I'm not sure it worked.
  • Ophelia's madness scenes contained snatches from dialogue in the rest of the play (as well as some of the traditional songs). That worked marvelously well.
  • The part after intermission was generally very bad. The palace had been filled with charred bits of wood and other rubble—knee-deep or higher in some places—without much preparation. It was a neat idea, but it didn't organically fit the rest of the vision of the production. Additionally, that part was extremely rushed and didn't always make a lot of sense. Claudius suddenly says, "Do not drink, Gertrude" after Hamlet chases Laertes down and stabs him back. She's choosing that moment to have a quick nip of wine?
  • Speaking of wine, we do not have a Claudius who drinks very much. We do have a Hamlet who's often polishing off a goblet of wine. It's a nice touch—his complaints about "We'll teach you to drink deep" are then transferred from his own problem to Claudius'.
  • "To be or not to be" is placed extremely early. I think that's a good choice. We're not building up to it and preparing to judge it by the others that we have heard. It seems more spontaneous and straightforward. I think they followed Q1's placement of the speech there.
All in all, the production gives us lots to think about. But if I owned a DVD (which I will—if you release it, O National Theatre Live—and please do), it would not become my stand-by full Hamlet for students to watch in their entirety. Cumberbatch is brilliant, but he can't hold up the production on his own.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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