NT Live: Hamlet Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

A friend of mine gently reminded me that I haven’t blogged in about two months since I announced that I was about to start working full time teaching writing at a nearby university. And he’s right, it has been a long time, and I do have a lot to say. Teaching has been an amazing experience:  fulfilling, exhilarating, draining, and completely enjoyable despite the doubts and nerves I have suffered along the way.

But for this brief return to blogging, I’d much rather talk about the experience of viewing Benedict Cumberbatch as “Hamlet.” Because, Shakespeare!

I joined some 225,000 people in theaters around the world to watch the live, concurrent broadcast of a prerecorded performance of the play, breaking the record for attendance at such broadcasts. It was undeniably exciting to know that at that moment, all around the world, other theater-goers were settling into their seats to share the same experience as I was about to — not just my friends Chris, Tara, and Kimberly, or my fellow CU professor and Shakespeare acting class graduate Teresa whom I ran into at intermission; not just the dozens of people in the two movie theaters in Boulder; but thousands, and apparently hundreds of thousands, of people from Moscow to Madagascar, who were all ready and waiting to see “Hamlet” at that very moment.

Cumberbatch made a wonderful Hamlet:  childlike and honest, tormented by his father’s death, utterly believable. He was also believable as a recent and voracious student, which most productions leave out as an element of the character; in Cumberbatch, there is intelligence dancing in his eyes and in every expression of his face.

Ciaran Hinds was a surprisingly good Claudius. His first moment on stage was a bit rushed and all of us agreed that we were concerned because that is supposed to set the tone for his character, but he grew more confident and more imposing — almost physically larger — as the play progressed. His Claudius was a corrupt manipulator who seemed only sorry to have been caught.

Ophelia, usually so difficult to portray well, was marvelous. The decision was made to have Ophelia be emotionally fragile from the very beginning so that her mental fragmentation and madness was more believable. I felt that this made her less appealing as the object of Hamlet’s affection, but my daughter (who did not attend the showing but is reading the play with her high school class) did point out that powerful men commonly prey upon fragile women. Touche. The play was edited in such a way that Hamlet was more cruel than loving to Ophelia in their interactions, and in fact, she fled the scene of the play within the play (where most productions have Hamlet sprawled across her physically, making her uncomfortable and embarrassed). The only time you sensed any emotion from him towards her was, of course, after her death. This Hamlet seemed to have real trouble displaying any genuine emotion towards the people in his life.

Horatio was entirely miscast and badly portrayed.  He was the worst wrong note in the entire production (and there were a few missteps) with his backpack and his tattoos and hipster attitude. I never believed his close friendship with Hamlet and he — both the actor and the character as edited — was too slight to carry the weight demanded of the role.

I have read many reviews that complain about the ash that covered Elsinore in the second half of the play. I thought it was a brilliant manifestation of the corruption that had become so thick, so deep, and so commonplace that the residents of the palace didn’t even notice it anymore. It was a dramatic and, I think, appropriate touch that arrived just before the Intermission, when Claudius sent Hamlet away to be slaughtered by the King of England. A set that had sparkled with twinkling lights and white flowers at Claudius’ coronation and wedding was now adorned with ankle-deep dust and ominous, bone-like branches.

It is an interesting feeling, watching a play on a movie screen, because you suddenly realize that with a movie, you hand over all of those decisions about where to focus your attention to the film’s director and editor, but with a play, you make those choices for yourself. In this amalgam of theater being filmed, you suddenly become aware that you want to make those choices for yourself but are constrained by the camera acting for you. For the most part, I felt that the camera made the choices that I would have made watching it in the theater in terms of who I wanted to focus on in a particular moment. (I’ll admit it. Most of the time, you wanted to look at Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s riveting.)

Did you see Hamlet that night or on one of the encore nights since? What did you think?

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