Admittedly I went with a fansquirrelish level of excitement to see the National Theatre Live’s production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch as the melancholy Dane. The five acts were compressed into two with a running time of about 3 hours, including intermission (in the interest of disclosure, that there was no wine available at the theatre may have coloured my less than thrilled assessment of the brutally truncated second act. Maybe). I have loved the play since I was a dewy-eyed maiden (even strutting and fretting The Big Monologue in my sophomore year of high school under a gloomily gelled amateur spotlight) and while I am no expert, I have seen and read the play enough to feel I know it. Gentle reader, your mileage, as always, may vary, but I felt sufficiently disappointed to blog about it. Quel moderne.
The first act was gorgeously produced with moodily sumptuous sets that set off the action with style. Elsinore was mouldering artistically, like a gothic Crate & Barrel catalogue. Costuming didn’t seem to matter too much – everyone looked like they had raided the theatre’s warehouse, perhaps augmented by runs to local thrift stores, but fortunately they did not detract from the action. Choosing to showcase a deteriorating Denmark on the verge of war and chaos for which it is unprepared resonates as strongly with our times as when Shakespeare wrote it.
The acting was the kind of solid, thoroughly and physically engaged thespianic presentation I expect from the British, and the language breathed beautifully through their lips, fluid, natural and understandable. With a few exceptions. I remain convinced that the person playing Horatio was a barrista who brought coffee to enough rehearsals that he was subsumed into the production, and Gertrude didn’t seem to understand that there actually were depths available to be plumbed by her character. There really was a strong ensemble feel, which is always gratifying to watch when “stars” are in the firmament. Cumberbatch as the eternal schoolboy and Ciarán Hinds as Claudius were superb without stealing the show. Sian Brooke’s Ophelia had a clear personality and went through a convincing character arc before going movingly, but blessedly not terrifyingly, mad. However, for all of that I always had a chilly sense of no one really connecting to anyone – there was very little personal chemistry (which makes Hamlet’s graveside declarations of love for Ophelia just a skootch awkward).
However, about two thirds in, the sheer manic energy and decibel level began to make me nervous. How could they propel the last act higher than the air raid siren loudness and frenetic blocking they had already built to?
The second act. Oh, the second act. Too brief, cut to the bone (and after Ophelia’s fairly well-played madness and death, cut some more). The set had become literally a mud heap, through which several of the characters slogged and in some cases alarmingly slipped. Elsinore after a California scale mud slide? Subtle. The pace grew more frantic, more key lines and codas were nowhere to be found (huge chunks of the gravesite follies were ditched, so to speak. Alas, poor Yorrick), and by the time we breathlessly arrived at the duel – the crucial, culmination we have been drawing to as the final train wreck – to say the action was untidy is an understatement. With a duel so poorly conceived, awkwardly blocked and almost non-existently choreographed, did we really need a slow motion, strobe-lit interpretive dance of dissolution right before the dénouement? In the midst of the duel, a strobe kicks in and for no discernible reason the entire cast starts doing a sort of slow moving dance redolent of chaotic destruction before the the duel stumbles to its conclusion. Memorable, but not in a good way.
The rest really was silence, thanks to a cut final speech and an awkward young Fortinbras in a suspiciously Reich-like uniform mumbling about how Denmark was his now. And then it. Just. Ended.
Good night, sweet Prince indeed. I spent 15 minutes after it was over simply saying, “Huh” over and over again.
What constantly makes me shake my head is how directors seem to not trust their material, especially with Shakespeare (Dickens as well, but that’s a rant for another time). After 400 years I think Hamlet can be safely relied upon to be a crowd pleaser if you just let it do what it was written to do. And to cut both stage business and lines in the final scene to the bone and then a little deeper (but waste precious time and narrative space with conceptual nonsense) does a disservice to both the play and the audience.
Still… Benedict Cumberbatch is fascinating to watch.
I just wish there had been wine.