I was lucky enough to see the live screening of Hamlet, broadcast all the way to my home town, thanks to National Theatre Live. When it comes to Shakespeare, I am always finding a “new favourite”. I therefore thought I’d take the opportunity to review the production with a comparison to my current favourite Hamlet. Keep in mind I’m no theatre critic, but I do love Shakespeare. This is obviously a stage production, but because it’s being broadcast it has the life and aftermath of a film/TV production. I’ve seen a couple such broadcasts and I highly recommend them.
The newest stage version really is quite remarkable. It begins quietly, with Cumberbatch as Hamlet sitting on the floor, listening to an old record while looking through photos. He is a very sad Hamlet. This little scene in the only one with such an intimate feel, however, as the backdrop lifts up to reveal the large mansion-style room. The court of the new King is set in the 40/50s, but with some older and some modern clothing elements here and there. It’s reminiscent of the 2009 TV version starring David Tennant – not quite costume drama, but definitely not contemporary.
The set, sound, lighting and editing (only experienced by those not in the actual theatre) was almost so effective as to overshadow the performances. My favourite trick employed was the use of “slow motion” during certain speeches (including “to be or not to be”). A spotlight focused on Hamlet, as he stepped outside the action of the scene, while the rest of the cast moved in slow motion, indicating Hamlet’s internal monologue was happening quickly as life goes on around him, and very much internally. Yet he does address the audience as per Shakespearean tradition. We are drawn even further into his state of mind, we are inside it. This effect is perhaps slightly off-set by the camera, being always to the side of the stage, and so the cinema audience is always separate from the audience we have to imagine in front of Hamlet.
The slow motion and other quick scene transitions make the play very hectic compared to other versions I’ve experienced. People interrupt, and lighting cues cut people off almost before the last word is spoken. Hamlet’s speeches end with the rapid restoration of movement and lighting. A few scenes are cut short or cut altogether. All of this makes for a very fast-paced and cinematic version, which I highly enjoyed. But the quieter moments were still kept quiet for the most part, and thanks to the close ups in the editing, which added once more to the cinematic experience, it could be intimate despite the large stage.
Now on to the performances. The only two who didn’t win me over completely were Polonius and Laertes, but only because the Tennant version had such memorable versions of these two. Here Polonius rushes all his lines, but I’m not sure what the intended effect was. In the Tennant version Polonius is almost the exact opposite, and becomes almost annoyingly slow, but there is a kindness that shines through. Laertes also works much better and more brotherly towards Ophelia in the Tennant version.
I mentioned Cumberbatch was a very sad Hamlet, but this was not to say he isn’t energetic or angry when the action calls for it. Compared to others, I’d still say he is the most depressed of the Hamlets in my memory. David Tennant, which is probably still my favourite by a hair’s breadth, is far more sarcastic, hiding his grief behind eye rolling and a sort of slacker attitude. They have more in common in the fashion department: both go out in t-shirts, though Tennant wears his almost throughout. Cumberbatch comes off as very young, despite being 39.
Everyone does a good job. Gertrude, played by Anastasia Hille, looks very similar to Queen Margrethe of Denmark fittingly enough. Ophelia (Sian Brooke) really came into her own once the madness started. The other great presence on stage was Claudius, played with great authority by Ciarán Hinds. I think he became my favourite Claudius during the praying scene. Despite being quite scary and looming, he is still very human.
All in all, this version of Hamlet was spectacular. Cinematic, yet with classic Shakespearian speeches towards the audience, and a unique set and design. I have a feeling this year will be a good one for Shakespeare in the cinema, with only a short time to wait for Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth.
Dice roll: 5