Hey fellow bloggers,
I wrote this play review years ago when the Bennedict Cumberbatch version of Hamlet was open to my local theatre…but I was WAY too scared to share it back then. Now that National Theatre Live has resumed play viewings, and I’m no longer afraid of writing on the internet, I thought it would be cool and nostalgic to share this. Enjoy and let me know if you went to go see this recently or in previous years!
Hamlet by National Theatre Live; International encores from 15 Nov, 2016 until 24, Nov, 2016; viewed 24 November, 2016
With symbolism, a diverse cast and raw, melancholic passion, Director Lyndsey Turner excellently produces a visually captivating re-enactment of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
She achieves her goal of telling the tragic story of Hamlet in a deep, resonating, stimulating manner. This play tells the story of Hamlet, who makes it his life purpose to murder his corrupt uncle, Claudius, for stealing his own brother’s crown, life and wife. To do this Hamlet must first act insane and organize a play with murderous events designed to trigger Claudius’ guilt thus proving him homicidal. Though Claudius is triggered and Hamlet’s plan succeeds, Hamlet accidentally murders the father of Ophelia, his lover. This accident, taken for a product of Hamlet’s insanity, causes him to be exiled and to boot drives Ophelia to suicide. For his murder, certain castle members secretly organize a rigged sparring duel against Hamlet. It is during this fraudulent battle that Claudius’ murderous secrets come to light and the lives of several castle members lives come to an end.
Realistic, capable actors such as Hamlet (Benedict Cumberbatch), Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) and Horatio (Leo Bill) execute emotionally captivating performances. In the first scene, a grieving Hamlet (Benedict Cumberbatch) is observed reminiscing so nostalgically over pictures of his dead father that I almost find myself tearing up. Benedict Cumberbatch continues to cast such spellbinding, raw, uninhibited emotion throughout his performance that, as if by magic, I feel his words reaching deep into my heart. His, “To be or not to be,” soliloquy is so genuinely performed that it resonates, making me truly ponder my human existence and the oblivion that will someday swallow mankind whole. Additionally, the audience is filled with a deep sympathy as Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) devastatingly pleads with Hamlet to leave her to the guilt of betraying her dead husband. Anastasia Hille’s skills far exceed the basic acting requirement of portraying sadness; her act advances to portraying such convincing utter despair. Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) also convincingly portrays the agony, anger and mourning that he feels upon learning of Ophelia’s suicide and Hamlet murdering his father. Horatio (Leo Bill) excellently portrays his role of Hamlet’s best friend by delivering his lines with bona fide tones of sympathy, concern and care when he speaks of Hamlet. He is so convincingly grief-stricken when Hamlet admits he is dying and genuinely seems like he is ready to take his own life as well. Less realistic than these actors, yet still impressive, are Claudius (Ciarán Hinds), and Ophelia (Sian Brooke). I believe Ciarán Hinds accurately portrays the cruelness and pervertedness that his character possesses, however, he could have done it more often. For instance, when Claudius’ murderous ways are revealed to the public, he simply hangs his head in shame and attempts to escape like a coward. A truly corrupt, evil king would have tried to murder everyone present or threaten to kill Hamlet if he didn’t keep quiet. Lastly, Ophelia (Sian Brooke) performs well in her scenes of despair and insanity yet lacks persuasion in her earlier stages. Due to long, inexplicable pauses, it almost appears as if she has forgotten her lines in the scene where she is saying goodbye to her brother. However, all considered, every character does a good job in developing the play’s plot and portraying their character’s role.
In addition to the actors’ performances are visually captivating special effects and technical aspects. I love the technical aspect of Hamlet’s soliloquies being signified by the spotlight centering on him as all other lights dim. It makes it very clear that he is only thinking to himself and the rest of the characters can not hear him. At times the sudden slow-motion moments become slightly overwhelming, for example when Hamlet is about to stab Laertes. Even in slow motion, the interpretive dancing and swirling blue lights just create unnecessary focal points that distract me from the actual stabbing. I also think that the transitions between acts and scenes are so smooth that they are almost unnoticeable. Most costumes look fitting for each character and the archaic time in which the play takes place. However, I feel that Horatio’s tattoos are icons of modern culture thus breaking the otherwise archaic feel that I got from the play. I also do not understand how Laertes’ (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) skin can be so dark when his sister and and father are quite white. However, whatever the reasoning, I am very pleased to see such diversity in the play’s cast: black, white and Indians too! I especially like Gertrude’s silk gowns which not only reinforce her wealthy, royal status but give her an elegant, soft, gentle look. Perhaps this was a technical tool designed to paint Gertrude in a more fragile, easily-shattered light. This way, when Hamlet confronts her, her distraught pleas seem more shattered and genuine thus helping Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) to convincingly play her role. Overall, these visual effects and technical tools aid the audience to fully comprehend and believe the play.
One aspect that aids the audience to appreciate this play is the the symbolic, critical or interpretive choices made by Lyndsey Turner. An interpretive choice that I appreciate was the pace of the play. There are some soliloquies or speeches that drone on a bit too long for my attention span, but in general every scene transitions in just the right amount of time to keep me intrigued. I also enjoy the interpretive choice on how Ophelia’s suicide is performed. Ophelia comes downstairs dragging a suitcase, meaning that she intends to leave for somewhere shortly. Then, in the midst of darkness, she runs into a door of white light that closes behind her. This signifies that she has finally departed the dark insanity and grief of her life to go to a brighter place. I also find it interesting that Gertrude simply looks at the camera in Ophelia’s suitcase and is immediately aware of the suicide. Judging by how passionate Ophelia appears to be about picture-taking earlier in the play, the camera likely represents her existential purpose in life. When she departs without this emblem of her life’s meaning, Gertrude realizes that Ophelia’s destination is not one of this life but rather one of death. Another wise symbolic choice is when Hamlet places a glass of poisoned wine in the center of the stage that soon overturns, slowly spilling. This appears to represent the corrupt, traitorous blood that slowly seeps out of the dead bodies of Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes. Another interpretive choice that I notice is a constant comparison or representation of humans through musical instruments. For example when Hamlet confronts Guildenstern for trying to play him for information like one plays a horn. This musical parallel also exists in an earlier scene where Ophelia is playing piano with her brother to cheer him up before he leaves. This piano music appears to be a sanctuary where Ophelia finds joy and hope in times where she is sad or lacking someone. When Ophelia closes the piano lid moments before her suicide, is it a symbolic message that she no longer has any source of hope in life? One last, symbolic, existentialist message lies near the end of the play, when Horatio speaks with Hamlet for the last time. Seeing Hamlet in his fatal state leaves Horatio feeling hopeless and suicidal, however Hamlet stops him. Hamlet, who has finally achieved his life goal of killing his uncle, claims that Horatio must live on to explain the sordid story to the public. I interpret this scene as a message to mankind: The beings of this earth are here to add meaning and explanation to an otherwise meaningless world. The literal reason we exist is to create reasons to exist, then proceed to make offspring to explain those stories to. We are simultaneously the Hamlets, who create and achieve our life goals, and the Horatios, who spread these purposes to the rest of the world and future generations. Perhaps this is why humans are often represented by musical instruments throughout the play; just as music is meant to add joy and meaning to our lives, humans are meant to add joy and meaning to the Earth.
As a final note, Director Lyndsey Turner creates a well-performed, emotionally stimulating masterpiece for her audience. I give Hamlet ⅘ stars and suggest it for any Shakespeare lovers, Cumberbatch fans, existentialists or language arts students who are studying the script for school. However, even those who do not fall into these four categories are sure to enjoy at least one part of this excellently produced, captivating tragedy.