When I spent a semester abroad in London (fifteen years ago!), I saw William H. Macy in American Buffalo and Ralph Fiennes in Richard II, experienced A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello at the Barbican, and even took a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a Restoration comedy. Back then, that was the only way to see live theater performances. Within the past decade, however, audiences worldwide have been able to experience staged performances at their local movie theaters.
Still, while I took advantage of my job at a movie theater to avail myself of this option, the first truly live offering for me only came last month, with a National Theatre Live performance of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the troubled prince of Denmark. Two performances were scheduled (not including encores): the first one, at 11 am, was a live stream from the Barbican; the second, at 7 pm, was a “same-day live” broadcast. With intermission, the show ran almost 4 hours.
Luckily, the day the live shows were playing — October 15 — was a Thursday. And I have Thursdays off.
Even luckier, the earlier performance had seats left. And — being the cultural snob that I am — I wanted to see the live show. True, I’d have no chance of getting Cumberbatch’s autograph, or of running into Tom Hiddleston (twice) on the way to the bathroom (as a friend-of-a-friend did), but I would get to see Shakespeare’s greatest character in one of his greatest plays, played by a man who has made a specialty of playing morally complex characters.
Usually, during the intermission, NT Live includes extra features, such as a discussion with the actors or insight into an interpretational choice. In this case, the extras were shown ahead of the performance. They consisted of a sit-down interview with Cumberbatch and his visit to a school in England that was also putting on the play, the latter in order to witness their interpretation of the “To be or not to be” speech. The first part revealed that, after each night, Cumberbatch mostly feels hungry and tired, while the second showed the children choosing to have everyone participate in the monologue (to interpret and highlight the speech as so many voices and influences Hamlet is feeling at that moment).
For the Barbican performance, the first interesting artistic choice occurs at the beginning of the play. Act I, Scene I –with the guards and the ghost — is jettisoned in favor of Horatio’s entrance in Scene II (minus Marcellus and Bernardo, who enter with Horatio in the proper place in Scene II), which now comes before the beginning of the scene with the king, queen, and court, so that Hamlet mentions his displeasure to Horatio that “the funeral bak’d meats/ Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”* at the start of the play, instead of two scenes in. I found this a wise decision, as the play now begins and ends with Hamlet, first mourning his father (while clutching a portrait in his lap and listening to a sad recording on vinyl), and then dying in the arms of Horatio. The tone is set, therefore, not by the dead father, but by the mourning son. Other great touches include the operatic flourishes that occur when the ghost appears to Hamlet and the scene which occurs right before intermission, in which wind-swept ashes blow through the palace as a doomed-filled note falls from the speakers. And then there’s the costumes, wherein those outside the strict world of the aristocracy dress in more casual clothing than the rest of the people in the play — clothing which can change in regards to their relation to those in power. While Horatio is too overdone, with tattoos and casual wear reminiscent of a European backpacker, I found Hamlet’s change from suits to t-shirts (as he feigns madness) convincing, with the opposite transition occurring for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (though they keep their sneakers with their formal attire).
Cumberbatch is an excellent Hamlet, saying the lines with meaning and giving insights into not just the character, but how great a writer Shakespeare is. When Hamlet dies, I started tearing up. But while I expected a great Hamlet, I didn’t expect a great Ophelia. In all the screen and stage adaptations I have seen (the former outnumbering the latter), I never found her madness convincing, but here Sian Brooke shows how vulnerable she is in her love for Hamlet from her first scene, which makes her later mental disintegration believable. And while Ophelia’s brother Laertes is too one-note in his rage after hearing about the death of his father, and Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude — while also saying her lines with meaning — won’t make me forget Glenn Close, Claudius is a role in which I have yet to see anything less than a good performance — including this one.
All in all, an astonishing Hamlet, one that is as alive today as it must have been when performed over 400 years ago; and the best part is, you don’t have to hop a plane to London to see it.
Hamlet – Prince of Denmark ………… Benedict Cumberbatch
Horatio ………… Leo Bill
Polonius ………… Jim Norton
Claudius ………… Ciarán Hinds
Gertrude ………… Anastasia Hille
Ophelia ………… Sian Brooke
Laertes ………… Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Produced by Sonia Friedman
Full cast list can be found here.
*Source: The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare, Chancellor Press, 2000, p. 802