By the way, don't eat a Snickers bar and drink a mocha Starbucks protein coffee drink thingie at the same time. It makes the mocha taste like cough syrup. Weirdest thing. I was positively forced to eat more Snickers to get the taste out of my mouth. You've been warned.
So, obviously, I didn't go to London to see this. Thanks to something called National Theatre Live, I got to see a live performance from the relative comfort of a relatively local movie theater. Here's their little trailer for it, so you can get the teensiest of tastes:
That at least gives you an idea of what the set is like, and you can see a few of the costumes. Not that you care about that very much, though. You mainly want to know... how was Cumberbatch? Was he Hamlet-y enough? Was he wonderful? Was he lovable? Was he wild and tame and sad and angry and determined and despairing in all the right places?
Yes, he was indeed. He was a very emotional Hamlet, but also energetic. He played most scenes on the verge of tears -- here is a prince who loved his dear father very much, who still loves his mother even though he's quite angry with her, and who may have even loved his uncle until Claudius started being so dreadful. He also loves Ophelia, and maybe even Horatio. This Hamlet is very loving, very lovable. He was also very energetic -- lots of leaping and whirling and activity. In a little interview before the play began, Benedict said he ends every performance quite hungry, and I can well believe it. He made me hungry just watching! Hence the Snickers bar on the way home.
Right, more cast notes, and then I'll get into overall production stuff like text and staging. While I was exceedingly excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch in the role, being a fan of his from Sherlock and so on, I was also really eager to see Ciaran Hinds as Claudius because I quite enjoy him in many things as well. Here, I was also not disappointed.
Hinds was a bombastic Claudius, fond of shouting (is this a Hinds thing? Think how shouty his Mr. Rochester is too), but also fiercely intelligent. A dangerous Claudius, which is how I like them. And he was bitter, especially toward the end, as Gertrude turned away from him more and more. I was very moved by his prayer scene, where he confesses his guilt and tries to find some sense of repentance within himself. Well done.
I can't find any pictures of Horatio (Leo Bill) online, and that's probably because he's kind of a nonentity. I was disappointed by this Horatio. He spends more time hanging out with the soldiers than with Hamlet, he popped on and off the stage at convenient moments to deliver messages, and that was about it. I want my Horatio and Hamlet to be very dear friends, you see, and while Hamlet often reached out to Horatio, literally and figuratively, Horatio seemed almost aloof, like a spectator and not a part of the proceedings.
Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) was better, but not wonderful. I never got any sense that he had any real affection for Ophelia except in a couple really nice moments involving a piano -- at the beginning, when he leaves, the two of them sat together and played a little duet, which Polonius interrupted. Then during Ophelia's flower scene, she begged him to play that song for her, which was sweet and charming, and if they'd had that same level of connectedness in the rest of their time together, I would have been well pleased.
Now, Ophelia (Sian Brooke) was really good. At first I was a little indifferent toward her, because she seemed almost childlike and sort of random, but I think they were trying to show that not only was she naive, but she was also mentally fragile already at the beginning. Not mad yet, but certainly easy to push toward madness. And her mad scenes were wrenchingly good. Really, some of the best I've seen. I had tears in my eyes by the time she made her final exit. Oh, and they did a super cool thing there where she walked off into the misty distance, and Gertrude realized Ophelia was contemplating making an end of things and rushed off after her.
Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) was good, but I didn't love her. She was very sympathetic. Polonius (Jim Norton) was fine, and so was everyone else, really. Horatio was the only off-note for me. But this was such a strong Hamlet that the story didn't suffer too much from a mostly-absent and ineffectual Horatio -- it served to isolate Hamlet further in a way.
Okay, so the set you saw a bit in that trailer, and here's another photo of it:
They did some interesting things with it with lighting and so on, making it seem almost haunted a couple of times. And then when Hamlet left to go to England, in the scene this shot is taken from, they filled it full of... something. I suspect bits of ground up car tires -- something black and clumpy that blew in through the doors as the curtain went down for the intermission. When things began again, the whole set was filled with this stuff, great heaps of it like rubble, and all the chairs were turned over and everything was disordered like there had been an earthquake or a bombing. I'm kind of figuring this was to represent the corruption and moral decay going on within the characters, or the way that Hamlet's absence affected everything while he was gone, or... something. It was kind of odd, and I must admit I spent some time puzzling over it while waiting for Hamlet to return.
Return he did, that wonderfully determined and settled-down Hamlet who comes back from cheating death and getting kidnapped/rescued by pirates. The last act was riveting, as it ought to be.
Interesting thing about their use of the text: they mixed it all up. They grabbed lines from here and there and gave them to other characters, they changed the order of some scenes or bits of scenes... at first, I was annoyed. Yes, I was. I was all, "How can you mess around this much with this text? What do you think you're doing?" But I decided to just go with it and see how it worked, and for the most part, it worked fine. I think that audience members who didn't know the text well would not have been bugged at all, but I did spend a lot of time going, "Wait, no, you don't say that. And that's not from this scene at all." One reordering I liked really well, though, was that they had the "To be or not to be" soliloquy come right after Hamlet told Polonius, "You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal -- except my life. Except my life. Except my life." That worked super well.
Ahh, speaking of the soliloquies. For most of them, they did something nifty that I very much enjoyed. Rather than having everyone else leave the stage so Hamlet could unpack his heart with words to the audience, they would plunge everyone but Hamlet suddenly into a colored half-light, with him in a spotlight, and everyone else would do this slow-mo thing while he addressed the audience in real time, so it was like here are all the things he's thinking while things are still going on around him. And then when he was done, the lights would come up and he'd rejoin the action and everything would go on as normal. I totally dug it.
I have no idea what time period they were trying to go for with the costumes and sets. They had sort of this WWII-era thing going on with the sets and props, with phonographs and telephones and stuff like that. But then the costumes ranged all over the place, from '40s looking things to Hamlet wearing I think a David Bowie t-shirt for a while, and Horatio was totally modern with lots of tattoos and sort of a scrubby, grungy thing going on. Perhaps they wanted it to be like a dream, or like a production that's sort of thrown together by a local company with whatever props and costumes they already have on hand from other plays? I have no idea, to be honest.
Okay, I'm finally running out of words and caffeine, so here's how I rate this for my Hamlet Comparisons file:
Overall Production: B+
If you're really wishing now that you had found a way to go see this -- check Fandango or a similar site, because there are encore showings scheduled! None right near me, but next week there's supposed to be one on Saturday in some places. I'm also really hoping and praying that they decide to release this to DVD, because I definitely would buy it.