October 16th, 2015


NT: Hamlet, 2015

ETA: This post from tempestsarekind on the production is interesting.

I saw the livestream of the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet last night. I enjoyed his performance, and that of many of the other cast members. Cumberbatch was terrific at all the funny bits, by the way.

I wasn't enthralled with the production itself.

I usually like the use of non-Elizabethan costuming, and I enjoyed it here. Cumberbatch was wearing a David Bowie t-shirt at one point, though, and that distracted me, because I kept wondering what it meant (if anything...presumably something?); I suppose someone could get a paper out of that detail!

I guess distraction is the main feeling I had for parts of the play. I was tired after a long day at work, which probably contributed, but I think the way the play was staged contributed as well. The scenery was changed smoothly as the play proceeded, actors doing most of it that I could see, so I think they were going for an unbroken narrative until the moment of crisis, when Hamlet is sent to England with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. The unbroken narrative felt rushed to me.

At the crisis point, the struggle to capture Hamlet after he's killed Polonius turns into most of the actors running or scampering on all fours in all directions about the stage. That went on for too long, even if it was meant to symbolize societal upheaval or whatever (I'm guessing). Just after that, and before intermission, a confetti cannon blasts the stage with black confetti, resulting in a devastated landscape heaped with cinders that the actors have to scramble over for the last segment (the pirates we never get to see, the fates of Ophelia, Rosenkrantz, and Guildenstern, the gravedigger scene, and at last the final melee).

For me, despite the smooth scene changes, the play seemed to careen too quickly from soliloquy to soliloquy throughout. I had no time to catch my breath, and I found I was getting more annoyed with Hamlet's youthful waffling and whining than usual when watching this play, because there was little break from it. I was particularly irked by the way Hamlet thinks he should be the one to dictate his mother's choices and morality - that's an issue I have with the play itself, not this production.

I did like how they staged the soliloquies. The soliloquizer got a spotlight, and in the dim background, the rest of the actors moved in slow motion, as if time was passing differently for them. That looked cool and made the soliloquies seem more stream-of-consciousness.

I think what I was missing most, and that made the play seem disjointed to me, msotly related to Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia. Their roles were trimmed down more than I've seen in other productions, which meant I felt less emotional connection with all of them. Polonius got comic dialogue exclusively, which gave me no handle on why Ophelia was so devastated by his death. Ophelia's romance with Hamlet wasn't really shown until Claudius and Polonius did their spies-in-the-arras thing, so I didn't get a chance to build a belief in it, or Hamlet's later massive show of grief at her death. (Of course, this is a problem with a lot of plays and even movies today: romance because proximity does not convince.) I was most satisfied with how Laertes's relationship with Ophelia was portrayed; I've always thought he was one of the most realistic of the characters. (But really, who lets their insane sister wander off on her own to drown?)

One of the best moments was silent staging. Gertrude tentatively opens Ophelia's footlocker after Ophelia has wandered off, to find it full of photographs and the camera Ophelia was carrying earlier in the play. Silently, Gertrude realizes this abandonment means trouble, and already grieving, runs offstage to find Ophelia dead. Don't abandon your hobbies! That way lies death!

I'm glad I saw it. I realized I've seen this play more than any of Shakespeare's others, once live (in high school) and several filmed versions as well, and I love seeing the different ways the text can be translated. I love thinking about the staging choices and what might have been behind them.

As a side note, I have seen the David Tennant filmed version, and I liked that a lot better than this production. I will have to watch the DVD again to articulate why, but I recall there was more Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia, and of course Patrick Stewart's Claudius was just incredible.

If you also saw it, what did you think?