Friday, October 16, 2015

"Hamlet" (2015 -- live-ish)

Well, I've seen it.  Prepare yourself for some wild and whirling words, my lovely blogging friends, because I am freshly home from seeing Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet, I am full of caffeine and chocolate, and I am bursting with things to say.  This will likely not be the most coherent or well-organized review I've ever written, but by jingo, it will be an enthusiastic one!

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:

Hamlet: A+
Horatio: D
Laertes: C
Ophelia: A
Claudius: B+
Gertrude: B-
Polonius: B
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.


  1. This looks SO cool! I know Benedict Cumberbatch is an awesome actor, so I'm really, REALLY glad you got to see him play Hamlet :)
    Yeah, I think the shouting is really a Ciaran Hinds thing . . . he shouts a whole bunch in Amazing Grace, too, as Lord Tarleton. He's pretty fantastic at playing villains in general, I think.

    1. Jessica, it was a great experience, for sure!

      I'm a Ciaran Hinds fan -- went through a phase a few years ago where I suddenly liked him a whole bunch and watched as many of his movies as I could. I reallyreallyreally like him as Capt. Wentworth in Persuasion, and I'm one of the few who likes him as Mr. Rochester too. Come to think of it, the only times I've seen him as an actual antagonist were in Amazing Grace and Hamlet -- unless you think of Firmin in POTO as an antagonist.

    2. Didn't you just LOVE the scene in Amazing Grace where he threw the chair at Mr. Woodhouse--er, I mean Charles Fox? That always cracks me up whenever I think about it :)

    3. Jessica, I love the whole movie, but yes, he gets some great moments. I think I crack up the most over Rufus Sewell's scenes, though. They're all awesome!

    4. Oh, HIM--Clarkson! I had to look it up to figure out who you were talking about :) Yes, he's really kind of funny . . . especially when he comes into the gallery when he shouldn't be there and Ciaran Hinds sees him and freaks out.

      Stephen Campbell Moore (James) is one of my very favorites. His line "She said it was King Wilberforce" always gives me sooooooooooo many feels. And I LOVE Olaudah Equiano.

    5. I love the moment when he whips out his pocket flask and says, "Well this saint bloody well does." But I do like Rufus Sewell -- he's always enjoyable!

      Hamlet connection to Amazing Grace: Nicholas Farrell plays Wilberforce's friend Henry Thornton, and he's my favorite on-screen Horatio in the Branagh movie version.

  2. So you didn't actually see Cumberbatch LIVE live. Like, saw him HIM move in the flesh on stage.


    1. Naomi, no, not "live" as in "in the same room with him while he played the part on a stage in front of me." That's why I called this "live-ish." It was filmed live and then broadcast all over the world.

      I did see Jude Law as Hamlet LIVE live *for real* a few years ago, though. That was amazing.

    2. Oh, okay, I see. It's still very cool, though. :-D

      And woowww. That's SO cool about Jude Law. :-D

    3. Yes, it was still an awesome experience, and also I paid less than $20 for a ticket, not 300 pounds like people who saw it live. And didn't have to fly to England and so on.

      But yes, seeing Jude Law live in the role is one of my most treasured memories. And it was all serendipitous -- Cowboy had to travel to NYC for work, and right then Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig were playing in something together on Broadway, and I was like, "Oh, man, too bad it's undoubtedly sold out," and I went looking around at various ticket-selling sites and discovered that there was a Hamlet going on right then. I was like, "OH! Sweet! I could see my first Broadway play AND my first live Hamlet at the same time!" So I clicked on it, and only then discovered it was Jude Law. And there were still tickets available for the weekend we'd be there. So I went :-)

  3. Thank you for such a superb review!

    *Tries to get my thoughts in order* Okay... I had some issues with this production and it isn't my favourite version of Hamlet (that would still be the David Tennant version) but overall I still really enjoyed it and I'll be forever grateful that it was recorded. Why did I enjoy it so much? Mainly because of Cumberbatch. I know some will think I'm biased but he was wonderful! He was sympathetic, he was energetic, he was funny, he was intellectual, he was playful, he was calculating, he was full of emotion, his soliloquies were so powerful. He was stunning! His Hamlet is definitely up there with his other best performances (imo that's his Sherlock and his dual roles in Frankenstein).

    Like you, I loved how the soliloquies were staged. And I really loved the set in this version and that they had Fortinbras come in at the end. The DT version mentions Fortinbras but since they don't have him show up at the very end I've always wondered why they even bothered with that.

    I think most of my issues with this production were the same ones that you had. I really missed the traditional opening with the ghost and since I'm already familiar with the play it felt really weird to me when lines were given to different characters and when scenes were shuffled around. Hamlet's death scene felt rushed to me and I didn't like the Horatio in this version either. The rest of the supporting cast were better; I don't think anyone blew me away but they were all solid. Ciaran Hinds was the best of the bunch and I liked him a lot - since he was definitely intimidating and sinister - but I do wish that there'd been more chemistry between him and Gertrude.

    Looking back on what I've written it probably sounds as though I didn't actually like this version much but that's not the case. It's just that Cumberbatch's Hamlet is definitely an A+ whereas the production itself is flawed and is more of a B.

    1. Hannah! Oooh, I was really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this :-) I almost put in my post, "Hannah, do you have any idea what all those mountains of rubbish meant?" (Do you?)

      No, this isn't my favorite either -- that would be the Ethan Hawke version, which I hope to rewatch in a few weeks and review before the end of the read-along.

      Cumberbatch really was wonderful. I mean, I am a fan in that I do own all 3 seasons of Sherlock, but I'm not exactly a fangirl of his. Like, I think I'm fairly unbiased about his excellence -- it's not like this was Chris Hemsworth or someone I'm a bit more biased about. I probably would have gone to see this if it was someone else in the role -- the fact that it was an actor whose work I have also enjoyed elsewhere was nice going in, but not the whole reason I went. Ditto with when I went to see Jude Law, actually. If either of them had stunk, I would have noticed.

      The soliloquies were great, so inventive, and I definitely appreciated that Fortinbras was included. Sometimes he gets cut out altogether, and then it's like, "Well, this is great -- now what? Horatio shall be king?"

      The opening threw me off, with Horatio coming in right off, and the ghost scenes getting mixed together -- I think the pacing was really the weakest aspect of the production, in that some scenes got shortened a ton, and then others were played all the way out and felt long by comparison.

      I didn't mention this in my review because I wanted it to be really positive and this wasn't a problem with the production, but someone's cell phone went off Right As Hamlet Killed Claudius! And rang several times, until they answered it. Which really kind of killed the ending for me, as I couldn't concentrate on it properly, so I couldn't talk about it much here because my impression was going to be biased.

      Yeah, more chemistry between Claudius and Gertrude would have been nice, especially on Gertrude's part -- I never really got the impression she married him for love at all.

      So yeah, it sounds like we had pretty similar impressions overall! I did put the whole production at a B+ because I liked so much of the staging and Cumberbatch was such a good Hamlet.

    2. I kind of figured that the rubble was supposed to represent moral decay or the fall of Hamlet's family house or line... or they just wanted a really cool effect! :D

      I'd class myself as a huge Cumberbatch fangirl but I haven't felt the urge to see every single thing that he's ever done, I don't think that his new film 'Black Mass' looks very good, and I think that his performance in 'The Imitation Game' was slightly overrated. He is very, very good in that film but he's given better performances imo and I was happy that Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar. But then I'm an Eddie Redmayne fangirl as well!

      Hahaha! Your Horatio comment made me laugh! It's so true though!

      Oh no! That must have been so frustrating! Urgh, people make me so furious at times!

    3. Hannah, I agree that nothing about Black Mass interests me much, not even Johnny Depp AND Benedict Cumberbatch in one movie.

  4. Do you know if they'll release this production on DVD or anything? I SO want to see it...

    1. Hayden, as far as I know there are no plans right now to release to DVD, but I personally think that since Cumberbatch is such a big draw right now, they would be fools not to.

    2. I wouldn't count on it, Hayden :( There's been a huge demand to have the NT release Benedict Cumberbatch/Jonny Lee Miller's Frankenstein on DVD and nothing's come of it. I think there's some kind of a rights issue.

  5. I had no idea about this. I am in graduate school now so my head has been so focused on studying. I have not even blogged regularly in a while or kept up with other peoples blog, but when I saw this post in my bloglovin feed I had to read it. WOW!!! I checked and sure enough it is coming live on screen to my area too.

    Thank you so much for enlightening me. I am a huge fan of William Shakespeare and I would love to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

    1. Xenia, I so hope you can find this and see it! It is a real treat.

      How's your schooling going?

    2. Hi Hamlette, graduate school is tough but I will rise about it with determination.

      I finally got to see this production last Sunday and it was amazing. I have never seen a production of Hamlet before so I don't have anything to compare it to. I LOVED Benedict Cumbercatch as Hamlet. He was everything in it that Hannah wrote. This was my first time seeing Cumberbatch in anything, so now I am going in search of his other work.

      Ciaran Hinds was outstanding, as he usually is in period productions. The only person I was not completely nuts about was the actor who played Gertrude. She was good, but didn't blow me away.

      I am so glad I went to see this production. It is a great way to spend Sunday afternoon and a great break away from my studies.

  6. This is playing at one of the theaters in my area, but I'm not sure I'll be able to find time to see it. I will now, though, try a little harder to do so.

    1. Lynn, that's cool! If you do manage to see it, I hope you enjoy it :-) BTW, the website said it was 4 hours long, but it is NOT. It's more like 2 1/2 hours of play, with half an hour of intro at the beginning and a 20-min intermission.

  7. Hey, everybody who wanted to see this Benedict Cumberbatch version of Hamlet and didn't get a chance! Fathom Events is bringing it back! March 8, in fact! Check out the Fathom upcoming events page to see if there's a showing near you.


Agree or disagree? That is the question...

Comments on old posts are always welcome!

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)