On Tuesday 27 October I went with Laura (who'd got the tickets) to the Barbican cinema 3 to see a broadcast of the NT Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which is currently running in the Barbican (it wasn't a live broadcast, but a reshowing of the live broadcast of a couple of weeks ago). It was pretty good, both the production and the experience.
I'd certainly do a cinema broadcast of a theatre production again. This was the first time I'd done one, and I'd thought they might be odd and without atmosphere; I wasn't sure how they were filmed either, and I guess I thought it might be the rudimentary style (on the rare occasions I've seen examples of it before this modern approach really got under way) of just a couple of locked-off cameras and dodgy acoustics. In fact the sound was very good - all miked up, just a couple of moments where the mics rustled or dropped out - and there was quite a variety of closer shots; not closeups of the speaker, which would have been tedious, but of the smaller group, with occasional shots of the whole stage scene. Occasionally I missed having a wider shot to see how everyone - or someone particular out of shot - was reacting, but the balance was good on the whole. The shots must have been very carefully planned, and I guess camera technology is such that it is possible to move and zoom less obtrusively because of changes in camera size and quality of zoom resolution from further away. (Also, as a number of the reviews mention, some of the action, particularly on the balcony corridor stage right, was out of sight of some of the seats, people complaining they were in effect restricted view seats though not advertised as such.)
A number of disordered notes follow.
- The programme cost £8.50! A4, but not a great deal of content. I've never paid so much for a theatre programme; it's priced at the West End musical souvenir programme level. Sonia Friedman Productions making the most of their property. Have to say, however, it has lots of good production photos, which you rarely get in programmes.
- In one of the articles in the programme (which, in general, as on this occasion, I avoid reading before seeing the play if they're about the play itself) James Shapiro talks about the contrast between the 1604 and 1623 versions, with the particular example of the cut of the soliloquy after his encounter with Fortinbras's forces as he's being taken to England, which James says this 'chance encounter is the turning point of the 1604 version, crystallising for Hamlet the futility of heroic action'. Yet that seems the exact opposite of the soliloquy's conclusion, apparently inspired by this great action over triviality, 'from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth' - at a time when he's being forcibly led away from where he is supposed to be acting. The performance of the Mousetrap is a much more obvious candidate for the key turning point.
- Another article in the programme refers to the fact that the choice of what to cut is a key and necessary directorial decision, and quotes Simon Russell Beale: 'The role of Hamlet is very hospitable. It will take anything you throw at it.' The third article seems bizarrely irrelevant. I read someone once saying that articles about the play in the
programme rarely relate to the interpretation of that particular
production (sometimes even contradicting it), and I have often found that to be true.
- I thought the military theme well done; a nation with conflict and potential war looming over it, plans, preparations and negotiations under way; sometimes the Fortinbras/international plot is background, sometimes omitted altogether, but it was very much present here; it also informed the expression which Hamlet's feigned madness took, quite well done.
- Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) didn't hug the mad Ophelia, as usual (this will become one of the points I look out for consistently now, having had it pointed up by one of the few particularly notable features of the production I saw earlier this year), but did I think go with her to the piano to play together as they had done earlier (and which was obviously something they had often done).
- It was the usual Polonius portrayal (Jim Norton); insensitive and non-wise windbag, not particularly loving.
- Ophelia's instability was signalled early, which is unusual; I wasn't sure about it at first, but turned into my favourite performance of the evening (Sian Brooke). Ophelia in the earlier scenes, especially with Laertes, is usually portrayed as very confident and self-possessed, which makes the later sudden descent into real madness (so clearly contrasting with Hamlet's feigned madness) so unexpected and hard to understand. The descent was gradual and very well done.
- Against the modern tide, no implication that Ophelia is pregnant. (Conversely, it's been so long that I've seen a production in which there was any doubt that Hamlet is not mad, that I wonder if I've ever seen one, and I wonder why 'Is Hamlet mad?' has ever been a real question.)
- I'm very much at ease with colourblind casting, but it was a bit odd having Laertes and Ophelia of different colours.
- Horatio felt a bit characterless; usually one of my favourite characters, or at least one I identify with most, he didn't seem to be given much definition to work with.
- similarly, I like to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but they felt quite cut down, and again with little to work with (and two actors I've seen before who I know could have been given more, Matthew Steer and especially Rudi Dharmalingam). But that's Hamlet, full of tough decisions about what to cut. I still find it very odd that the play is so long, a length that could surely never have been performed in full.
- It struck me later, on the play in general, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't have known what was in the letter that they carried with them to England. When they were parted from their friend Hamlet at sea they must have been worried about him, and clearly did not think their commission was now redundant, so they dutifully completed it and were put to death unexpectedly and wholly gratuitously because of Hamlet's rewriting. The last thing we see Hamlet say before the sea journey, however is henceforth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth, which at one level is preposterous since he's being escorted out of the country, but perhaps his rewriting of the letter, and effectively murdering his old school friends, is him putting this into practice.
- Something someone said seemed to imply that Hamlet was, in this journey, going 'back' to England; I'll need to check that.
- As often with productions of Hamlet, there are some surprising things not cut, or lines I feel like I've never heard before. Sometimes it's not obvious why they survived the edit in that particular production. This one had the rarely seen 'sailors delivering letters to Horatio' scene.
- There were some bits out of order, which isn't unusual, although less usual to have shorter bits, a line or two say, appearing in a different scene. Ophelia did quite a bit of quoting in her madness, which did make sense. I remember that in one of the reviews published from a preview night - about which there was such a fuss - it said that the play had opened with 'to be or not to be', a choice which did not survive beyond the previews I think.
- I thought Claudius (Ciaran Hinds) was a bit too blank and shouty (right from the start, from being bossy and aggressive, rather than reasoning, when telling Hamlet to stop grieving). When Claudius is unpleasant, as he often is, it's hard to see what Gertrude has seen in him, unless you're portraying her as in traumatic rebound.
(- I wonder who makes the decisions about how you play your character? Is it all down to the director? There must be some kind of back and forth. I guess the director must have an overall vision of how the characters fit together, so you can't just play it the way you think it should be played. But then having to do it someone else's way must take a lot of the fun out of of it.)
- I thought Gertrude was well done; nicely vulnerable. (Anastasia Hille - it was bugging me what I'd seen her in very recently, and I soon remembered it had been Not Safe For Work on telly.)
- The set was good, and didn't change: large interior of the palace, but with depth, and then at the end of the first half a striking moment when dirt blew into cover the stage, providing the exteriors for the second half at the same time as, I guess, reflecting the corruption which Claudius, the only person on stage at the time (having just resolved to send Hamlet to his death in England), has brought.
- The opening scene of Hamlet, sitting grievingly in a room/attic (at the front of a stage, with a backdrop which moves to reveal the full palace set behind) made me think of something similar in Rory Kinnear's. He's listening to old records which reminded him presumably of his dad; also clear implication that the black coat he takes out of trunk, smells and puts on is his dad's, which is a nice touch. Reminded me of the Michael Sheen Hamlet, where if I remember rightly Polonius give Laertes his jacket, or a jumper, when he leaves at the start, and he comes back wearing it.
(- It's kind of ridiculous that that's the kind of comparisons that come to my mind about different Hamlets.)
- Benedict Cumberbatch, the main attraction, was pretty good as Hamlet, but not spectactular. It was a good production all round, but I don't know why Benedict Cumberbatch has become such an international celebrity phenomenon - on the back primarily of a handful of episodes of Sherlock, it seems (he was in The Hobbit too, of course).
- Interesting the way the soliloquys are done with everyone else going into slow motion in the background, which I think I've seen before (that, or just freezing).
- Hamlet himself took the role of the murderer in the play, which was an interesting touch.
- Some of the reviews below remind me that Ophelia's departure to kill herself is well done visually, with Gertrude realising that's what she's going to do; she realises because she looks in a trunk and finds Ophelia's photos - she spends a lot of the early part of the play wandering around taking photos (which rings a bell from another production, though that might have been Hamlet himself) - and in particular her smashed camera.
There shouldn't be any difficulty finding reviews of this production; I'll be impressed by any bloggers that find their way onto the first couple of pages of Google results... Observer (Liked it. 'He is never in the least bit mad. This control is a marvel, and a limitation. Cumberbatch is arresting but not disturbing.' Loves the set). Guardian (didn't like it: ragbag, half-baked; hates the design; 'For a couple supposedly bound together by reckless sensuality, Ciarán Hinds and Anastasia Hille show a remarkable lack of interest in each other and suggest nothing so much as a frigidly elegant pair used to giving cocktail parties in the Surrey hinterland', which I'd agree with but would say is often the case; surprisingly, he liked Horatio; 'it says much about the evening that its single most memorable moment is a purely visual one: Ophelia’s scrambling final exit over a hill of refuse, watched by an apprehensive Gertrude'; thinks it's a potentially good central Hamlet performance let down by its surroundings and badly edited text, though I didn't think it worse edited in particular than others). Telegraph (likes it, up to a point: 'a blazing, five-star Hamlet trapped in a middling, three-star show'; I've seen other productions, of Hamlet and other things, which were very much a good central performance and nothing else around them, as if they'd put all their effort into paying for the star and getting that performance right; but as I say, I didn't think BC's was the best performance in this production. Hacked text and love/hate design becoming theme: 'The evening’s energies are dissipated not intensified by the confining Elsinore dreamed up by designer Es Devlin, and director Lyndsey Turner’s tendency to hack the text'). The Telegraph review has a link to their review of the first preview (if I remember rightly it was said the Barbican was less exercised about the early DT review since it was a good one and there was a sense that there was a publicity relationship going on there; all the same it's not a great review). Variety (thought the gravedigger was the best for years; doubled, as often, with the Ghost, I found neither anything special (gravedigger was fine, Ghost rarely makes a good impression with me, to be fair, though I thought the Ghost's accent wandered about rather oddly); 'Cumberbatch’s pivotal epiphany comes on the battlefield, surrounded by Fortinbras’ soldiers in their grey greatcoats ... All this changes Hamlet’s return to Elsinore entirely: Such is the threat of Fortinbras’s forces that the play’s politics dwarf any domestic drama.'). Standard. Daily Mail (another 'good BC, bad everything else' review). Financial Times ('In my view, critics should, in the main, respect the preview process and theatres should respect audiences by charging less for preview tickets' - a point made by many re the review controversy. 'The changed opening is one of several textual interventions, and, though it loses something - the first mention of the ghost, the suggestion of a general sense of unease - it emphasises something too: Hamlet’s isolation, suspicion and fear and the significance of identity throughout Shakespeare’s play.'; the Ghost's appearance is indeed quite late, and a different tone is set). Independent. Deadline Hollywood (a first appearance in my review links, I believe; 'This production knows Cumberbatch’s star is going to draw people unfamiliar with Shakespeare, so the staging is broad and unsubtle; it doesn’t bring anything drastically new or profound to the material'; 'When Hamlet soliloquises, the lights drop and decay is projected onto
the walls of the set — something literally rotten in the state of
Denmark' - didn't notice this, possible couldn't see it in the screened version). What's On Stage ('Norton's Polonius is too nebulous, and reading his "few precepts" from a
notebook doesn't look good; he'd know them, and he's not funny' - it did seem odd). The Stage. New York Times ('There wasn’t even entrance applause for Mr. Cumberbatch' - apparently common in the US, the philistines; 'And
why is Ophelia always photographing objects in close-up with a boxy
camera? Is this meant to be a literal interpretation of her stunned
lines about having to “see what I have seen”? Oh,
I don’t know. But when a director throws out such tantalizing gimmicks,
she had better be prepared to follow through on them. Here they just
seem like avant-garde window dressing.' - fair point). Digital Spy (another first-time appearance here, I think, with a review in the form of a list, which is the only language the young people understand, apparently). Huffington Post ('whisper it quietly, this Hamlet is fine, it's ok. But it's not great'; 'Benedict's Hamlet is sarcastic, mean, aloof to his girlfriend and
vicious to his mother. He also hams up the supposed mental illness for
all its worth' - interesting if concerns about depiction of mental illness are starting to become an issue; an odd review in that it gives the impression that the reviewer hasn't seen a Hamlet in which he's putting the madness on - hamming it up, if you will - rather than being driven to madness by situation and thoughts and finds this dramatically untenable). Cumberbatchweb (well done, fan site, for getting onto p2 of the results; maybe it's a big site in the Cumberbatch world - ah, 1.5million hits a month, not so shabby; she and I are in the minority in not being keen on the portrayal of Horatio, though she's much keener on the Claudius than I am; also points up the lighting design, which makes the single set work so well in its multiple uses). BritishTheatre (vociferously hated it; much about the butchering of the text, meaningless gimmicks, badly acted; review based on a 'preview night', of which they say: 'The night in question has been termed a preview by the Producers,
despite the fact that no literature about the production suggested that
there were previews, the box office at the time of booking could not say
when the press night was, the tickets themselves do not mention
anything about previews, and the ticket price for the night in question
was exactly the same as tickets for two months into the run. Only
Producer greed accounts for this. If you charge full price for a
production, it is not a preview.'). Vickster51Corner blog (well done, blogger, p2 of Google results; this a review of her third visit, post-press-night, having seen the first performance and another 'preview'; here are her thoughts on the first performance - careful to make clear it's not a review; it's very interesting to read the comparison and what's changed or developed; nice touch, which I'd forgotten, of Gertrude's clothes being wet when she returned with news of Ophelia's drowning; she liked Ophelia interpretation; we shared a number of opinions (though like a lot of the other reviewers she found Claudius too weak, where I thought the opposite); also mentions the puzzling moment, which I'd forgotten, of Ophelia frantically writing something in the corridor scene with Hamlet, which I expected to be a warning note that they were being overheard, but which passed without mention, she didn't show it and Hamlet didn't look, but Hamlet did subsequently appear to realise/suspect they were being observed for no apparent reason; I quite liked her reviews, and her blog is a new one to me; and I see from her Twitter that she went to the last performance as well!).
Several reviews mention Simon Russell Beale's performance (among others, most of which I have seen); I do hope one day to see the video recording of his performance which I think the V&A have in their video archive.