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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet


I just saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet last night.

It’s the best Hamlet I've ever seen. You simply can not miss this production.


The play is being shown through National Theatre’s NTLive — you can find a showing here:


I am not a professional theatre critic, but I would like to share some of my thoughts with you about this fantastic production.

I didn’t know what to expect. I made an effort not to read any reviews beforehand, and I tried very hard not to read any of the press about the production. 

I did not want to spoil the effect of watching Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

And what an effect it is. He is superb.

It is easily the greatest performance of his career.


I have enjoyed seeing his performances on TV, and in film, but this is the richest, fullest and most thorough demonstration of his talent I have ever seen.

I knew he can deliver complicated dialogue, and quickly. What I didn’t know is that he can reduce Shakespeare’s often challenging and convoluted dialogue into very relatable and coherent thoughts. Just by his delivery, verbally and through body language, he translates Shakespeare’s poetry. Watching him speak as if these thoughts were occuring to him in real-time, and not memorized beforehand, is an unexpected and thrilling surprise.

What suprised me the most about his performance was how out of control he seemed to get, how his emotions occasionally rose to the surface, broke free and escaped his command of the role. 

During those moments, the character of Hamlet, the soul of the character which Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago, spoke through Mr. Cumberbatch — as if he summoned a spirit and it came alive within him.

William Shakespeare himself, in the guise of Prospero, spoke of his “potent art” and “rough magic” and how he has commanded graves to open and awake “their sleepers.”

Well, I think that Benedict Cumberbatch woke up the spirit of Hamlet through his rough magic and potent art as an actor.


Over and over again during this production, his emotions became stronger and more authentically real than I have ever seen in any of his prior roles. It was like watching an entirely new actor.

When he confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s grave and asks “Dost thou come here to whine, To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her?—and so will I.” he gets himself in such a frenzied emotional state that it was hard to watch. It was almost too painful to witness.

And yet, he gives a riveting performance, that is the most fearless, the most in control (but always seemingly about to spin out of control) and most mature than any I have seen before from him.

It is hard to describe the absolute pleasure it is to watch him in this role.

I can’t wait to see him as Richard III in the upcoming Hollow Crown series, and I hope that he returns to Shakespeare as often as possible — especially for the stage. 

I fully expect that he will become known as much for his Shakespeare work as he will for anything else he does in his career.

What makes this production an even greater delight is the incredible cast.

Ciarán Hinds as Claudius

I was thrilled when I heard that Ciarán Hinds would play Claudius. He is a great actor, and he does not disappoint here. In fact, this is definitely a highlight of his career. 

He is a very formidable foe for Mr. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and perhaps my favorite moment is when Hamlet catches the conscience of the king — the look on Mr. Hinds’s face is priceless — like the color has gone out of his face.

Also, I love when Mr. Hinds lets loose and grows angry and loud. He has such a commanding presence, larger than life, that I want to see and hear him not just as a usurping murderer, but as a grand tyrant.

Anastasia Hille as Gertrude
in the bedroom scene
Anastasia Hille is wonderful as Gertrude. It is one of the most demanding stage roles, because so much of it depends on the bedroom scene. In that scene, the queen, while innocent of the plot to kill her husband, is unmasked and shamed into reclaiming her virtue. 

So, for me, the point of the scene is to see her at arguably the lowest moment in her entire life — and how she comes out of it alive. Hamlet does not kill her, but he does murder her vanity.

In that scene, I was astonished at how emotional Ms. Hille became, how she abandoned all vanity. It is a real tour de force, and I have never seen it done with such power. 

Sian Brooke as Ophelia

Sian Brooke is marvelous as Ophelia. I admired how she showed Ophelia as a rather fragile creature even from the very beginning — as a young woman who is bossed around by her father, and whose brother eclipses her.

Too often, I think Ophelia is played as bright and strong, only to fall apart, and die. Here, I think Ms. Brooke did it right, by showing that Ophelia’s weakness is always there. Her Ophelia is good and decent, but succumbs to too much manipulation. She is collateral damage in the war waged between Hamlet and Claudius.

I have to admit that it was also sometimes too painful to watch her, her brave depiction of this fragile flower of a girl crushed underfoot is too heart-breaking to look at. 

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes is refreshingly fragile as well. He is no two-dimensional opponent for Hamlet, but rather like a brother whom Claudius has turned away from reason and love for Hamlet. There should be no pleasure taken in seeing them duel at the end, and gratefully this production doesn’t glorify this fatal fencing match.

Jim Norton is perfect as the patron saint of bureaucratic villainy, Polonius. What I admired the most about his portrayal of Polonius is that he is often funny but never thinks himself as humourous. He plays Polonius very straight, which makes him even more real and human — which makes him even more frightening a figure.

Nothing amuses him, nothing makes him happy, nothing shocks him. He is all business — even when it includes plotting against Hamlet.

The rest of the cast is just great — each is cast with care and each gets their moment to shine, and put their mark on their role.


Much of that credit goes to Lyndsey Turner, the director.

She has done an extraordinary job of assembling such talent, creating such a vivid and intriguing world in which they perform, and allowing them to perform to such heights.

She also finds most all of the humour in the play, which makes this a rare Hamlet where you laugh quite a lot.

The setting is modern-ish, with elements which evoke different periods in history. Perhaps the most intriguing is the toy soldier motif, which creates an interesting comment on a Denmark which is threatened with war.

The set itself is designed by Es Devlin, most famous perhaps for her having designed the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony. It is monumental and very cold. It is not a happy or pretty world, and you can begin to appreciate the joyless childhood Hamlet and Ophelia would have suffered there. 

The set evolves over the course of the play, and I don’t want to give too much away, but instead of going outside to see the grave where Ophelia is buried, the graveyard becomes the interior of Elsinore.


I always prefer to see Shakespeare in period, not in modern settings or modern dress — but I have to say that almost instantly I didn’t care anymore. I was focused on the performances more than anything, and as long as they were compelling and excellent, I was too busy to notice much else.

I loved the music by Jon Hopkins. My biggest complaint was that there was not enough of it. I wanted to hear more.

So, please do yourself a favor and see this Hamlet. With any luck, a DVD/Blu-ray will be made, but in the meantime you can find it through NTLive.

Cheers,


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