With an immense and beautiful set, wonderful staging and a tremendous cast, this production brought Hamlet closer than ever before.
Union Films’ showing of National Theatre Live’s Hamlet was everything you needed from an evening of entertainment – intense, poignant, at times comical and ultimately a genuine tragedy which reflects not only the fragility of the human psyche, but also explores the complex machinations of incest, familial bonds and war. It’s basically an Elizabethan Game of Thrones on stage.
The complexity of the production was astonishing: from an explosion that could be taken from any CGI-based action film to a huge set that looked both like the most luxurious castle and the creepiest graveyard, Hamlet went beyond delivering the 400-year-old Shakespearean text – it brought it closer to the expectations of a modern audience.
Having seen both the live and recorded versions of this production, it wasn’t hard to feel that something was lost in the move to the cinema. Confidently a five star masterpiece in a theatre, it is difficult to give it more than four when seated before a screen. The vastness of the stage was lost somewhat, as the camera would pan to whatever character was supposed to be in focus, and in consquence the production’s physical representation of Hamlet’s isolation and loss lost all effectiveness. In addition, it was clear that some of the actors were much better suited to stage than to screen. But Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet thrives on camera, his subtlety of expression coming into its own when allowed to fill the screen.
The Danish prince changes costumes on a whim, ending up wearing a pair of toy soldier’s trousers, a Bowie t-shirt, and an overcoat with ‘KING’ written in white on his back, and his manner is equally as changeable. He cries, shouts, loves, hates, dances, and sasses people – and he is a diamond with every facet shining.
As part of the National Theatre Live event, Cumberbatch was interviewed on his experience portraying this iconically complex role, described as a “hoop” that all predominant actors must “jump through” sooner or later. When asked why he decided now (or two years ago, when the production was filmed live from the Barbican) was the time to take the leap, he mentioned the opportunity to introduce a new group of people to Shakespeare’s legacy. It is safe to assume he was referring to the youthful fans of BBC’s Sherlock, a show with him in the titular role. And, although this production was sophisticated and complex, it was clear that it had made an effort to supply to this younger audience.
Part of this adaptation process was to change the text slightly, making this monster of play a little more bearable, balancing the heaviness of the tragedy and existential dread with lightheartedness. The Gravedigger, the play’s fool, was an utter joy. Surrounded by skulls and digging the grave we know to be for Ophelia, the old man’s many quips and puns allow us to escape from all the drear, inspiring proper belly laughs in the audience’s majority.
In Hamlet’s episodes of madness, he dresses as a toy soldier, and romps about the stage childishly, and it is clear that both the character and actor are having fun faking insanity. But this does not undermine the raw power of his soliloquies, beautifully staged as all characters around him fall into shadow and slow-motion. As Hamlet clambers upon the table under a sole spotlight, and pours forth his soul, the strength of Cumberbatch’s talent is fully displayed; I was nearly brought to tears by the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, one I’d heard many times before, but never with such a connection formed between the audience and the tragic Prince.
However, everyone’s favourite Sherlock wasn’t alone in giving a sterling performance. His sister Eurus (Sian Brooke) fills Ophelia’s shoes authentically with a consistency and depth of character rarely seen in this character: she plays the piano, sings, takes pictures, has a fashion sense that goes beyond black and white gowns. We even see glimpses of her relationship with Hamlet before he turns on her; in the shadows of the spacious stage they kiss and laugh and give us reason to mourn the loss of their love. Turner has obviously attempted to correct the hollowness given to the melancholy character by Shakespeare, and Brooke’s performance provides this character with a personality – and her final scenes were genuinely heartbreaking.
Although only a fraction of the stage production, this National Theatre Live event was not to be missed; to be there or not to be there was never a question in my mind.
Watch the trailer for the National Theatre Live event of Hamlet below: