This is possibly the least-timely blog post I’ve written (and I wrote it mostly at 3am), but late is better than never. Also, it’s a nice conduit for me to write about some aspects of Hamlet that I’ve been meaning to write about for over five years.
My thoughts on the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet (National Theatre , October 15).
Disclaimer: the only other version of Hamlet I’ve actually seen is the BBC/RSC David Tennant one (which I loved), and some of the Kenneth Branagh movie (which I thought was comically overdone). Otherwise my only experience with the play is having studied it in quite some depth in high school.
Ophelia: How Ophelia is portrayed seems to get a lot of critical attention, possibly because she tends to get less attention from producers than she perhaps deserves. The first and obvious glaring question: why is she always carrying a small camera. It’s never really explained and yet all the recent productions I know of do it. This production has telegraph keys going off in the background, so it’s also almost certainly anachronistic to boot. Basically it seems to happen just to 1) give Ophelia something to do so she isn’t just randomly hanging around (which is a really bad and lazy reason) and 2) to explain the “remembrances” that she returns to Hamlet in the nunnery scene (which are of course letters, not photos, but we’ve already established that none of this makes any sense anyway).
The flowers scene was confusing and muddled, which I hope isn’t reflecting a lack of research on the producers’ part. She really does not have very good singing, to the point where it seems possible that it was intentionally bad (it’s apparently in vogue to have Ophelia do this scene in a deranged crying fit, which isn’t exactly conducive to melodious singing. Personally I’d rather have the singing than the bawling). Overall, her character seems to suffer from a problem several critics have identified recently, which is that she isn’t exactly a strong female character—she’s Hamlet’s apparently-emotionally-unstable love interest with an overbearing (and frankly quite sexist) father, who ends up committing suicide under very obscure circumstances. That’s pretty much it. There’s not much to work with here.
But there are certain aspects that could be expanded on to at least make Ophelia an interesting character, if not a feminist one. My favorite theory regarding the flowers is from a relatively unknown paper that holds Ophelia is covertly signaling to Gertrude (via the specific types of flowers she presents in that scene) that she is pregnant (i.e., with Hamlet’s child) and in particular, has taken or intends to take crude abortifacients, and crucially, that Gertrude understands this signal, making this whole bizarre flower scene intended as a sort of female bonding backchannel/empathetic moment between the young Ophelia and the older Gertrude (the unwanted pregnancy of course, also neatly explaining why Ophelia has suddenly fallen into such extreme emotional distress). This theme was entirely absent from the play (and absent from most productions, I gather), which instead turns Ophelia into a dumb chick who goes suicidally insane for no reason and Gertrude a befuddled, powerless woman at a total loss for what to do.
On top of that, the process of Ophelia turning insane then suicidal really isn’t shown very well. She goes from seemingly okay, perhaps even playful (in conversation with Laertes as he leaves—for which, as a sidenote, the RSC version has a hilarious, much better interpretation, involving Ophelia finding condoms in Laertes’s luggage) straight to deranged and from then directly to suicidal, with no reasons given for any of this. Basically it’s not bothering to repudiate Polonius’s twisted and troubling conception of womanhood at all. Even the “fishmonger” scene, which is Hamlet’s opportunity to point out Polonius’s creepy obsession with his daughter, seemed played down, almost discarded. (This isn’t disappointing from just a storytelling perspective either; that scene has some of the best wordplay in the entire work.)
If you read this far down expecting my comments on other characters to also be this in-depth, I am afraid you will be disappointed. The above is most of what I have to say about Hamlet.
Ciaran Hinds as Claudius is excellent. I (and I suspect many others) recognized him only from his Game of Thrones role as wildling chief Mance Rayder. He has that same vaguely sinister look that he has on GoT, and it is very fitting to the role of Claudius. It sets up an immediate tension at the first dinner scene, making it crystal clear that Claudius and Hamlet have a mutually adversarial relationship from the very beginning (i.e., even before Hamlet meets the Ghost). The prayer scene was well acted, with the repudiation of the prayer at the end again, fittingly sinister. And when he banishes Hamlet to England, there is a convincing anger present. The only disappointing part was in The Murder of Gonzago, where I didn’t feel the sudden guilty indignity that the scene calls for. (I’m also bitter that they cut the call for “lights!” that ends the scene. In fact, they also cut the dumbshow entirely, and had Hamlet act out the second part of the play from the audience. I don’t understand this at all. Also, the Fall of Troy speech from the First Player was merely okay. It’s supposed to be moving-people-to-tears-level emotional and eloquent, dammit.)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet: very competent. It’s a high-pressure role, and he clearly feels that pressure keenly, but he pulls it off. He portrays a distinctly different kind of insanity than David Tennant’s: clearly and unambiguously faked, and not an angry, deranged sort of crazy, but more of a “how far can I troll Claudius and Polonius”, silly kind of messing-around. (Representative example: when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, he’s screwing around with a toy rifle, wearing a red soldier’s costume, in a play fort he’s constructed in the middle of a hall.) One of my favorite scenes in the RSC production is when Hamlet physically assaults Guildenstern in the “You would play upon me” scene (Act III, scene 2, after the play). I sort of prefer that interpretation, which leaves it up in the air as to whether Hamlet has actually gone insane or not (and somewhat more importantly, actually has Hamlet angry at people. I feel like this production missed the mark there).
Polonius: mediocre. Then again, much like his daughter that he can never shut up about, he’s another one-dimensional character without much flexibility. But as mentioned earlier, there are certain things that could have been done, which were not. The clouds scene could have been much better: it sounded cut short, almost as if either he or Cumberbatch had forgotten the lines (again, this is largely me being bitter about my favorite scenes being largely axed). Under the theory that Polonius exists largely as comedic relief, he could have been much funnier: a serious production and a funny Polonius should not be mutually exclusive. (The other comedic relief, the gravedigger, also fell flat for me, although I think all the jokes in the text did make it into the production.) If he is not taken to be comedic relief (which would just be silly), then he exists to be an anti-feminist, patriarchal prototype to be poked at, but this production doesn’t do anything interesting in that direction either. Again, a shallow character that could have been so much more interesting.
Gertrude: I don’t remember much (which means nothing particularly interesting). The bedroom scene was competently executed but had nothing particularly new. Gertrude is another incredibly passive female character, despite nominally being in a position of power. Possible places where her character could be extended: as before, in her relationship with Ophelia (at her burial: “Sweets to the sweet! Farewell. // I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife”. This just comes out of nowhere!), and also, as sharply pointed out in the bedroom scene, in how she ended up married to her dead husband’s brother. Was it coerced, or was she involved? Did she, as one theory holds, marry Claudius with the aim of protecting the life of her (ungrateful and misunderstanding) son Hamlet? (As it follows he, as the son of the king, would necessarily have been Claudius’s next target otherwise, see: Macbeth.) This production just doesn’t seem to care.
I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing how they’ve portrayed all the characters. On a positive note, the special effects (and set design in general) were absolutely fantastic throughout the play, although especially in the closing of the first half and the beginning of the second. (Particularly as it’s all done live!) It was not just visually appealing and technically neat, but genuinely thought-provoking. (Perhaps I just need to see more plays.) Unfortunately this is one of those parts where I feel like I can’t talk too much about it without totally spoiling it.
The fencing scene was… okay. The ending was a bit rushed, although perhaps I confused that with chaos, which would have been appropriate. Laertes’s rage was unconvincing. If he’s not foaming-at-the-mouth mad at Hamlet, why is he trying to murder him with a poisoned sword? And why on earth is he so pathetically bad at it? Regarding deliveries of lines: in my imagined mental conception of the play, the line “Follow my mother” is shouted in rage (!!1!1!!), not quietly whispered (Cumberbatch seems to be incapable of real anger entirely). It all feels wrong. And Hamlet messing with Osric about the temperature got cut, which is absolutely unacceptable.
Finally, there is the issue of live broadcast (this was an NTLive broadcast). In order to have actually been live, it would have had to have played at the Barbican in London from 2am to 5am on Friday October 16. Clearly this was not actually the case, since it plays on Thursday evenings. Therefore it was not, as advertised, live. This gives even less of an excuse for the several very distracting mic issues.