Sunday, November 29, 2015

HAMLET presented by National Theatre Live

Another Hamlet, this time the Cumberbatch performance on screen, reviewed by Frances, our president.

A few weeks ago I went to see 'yet another' Hamlet, this one the film of the National Theatre’s production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and, I must add, many other very fine performers. And what an extraordinary experience it was. I have held a mental conversation with myself about it ever since.

The central motivation for the whole action appeared in the simple opening scene — Hamlet sitting on the floor, leafing through an old family photograph album and listening to Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ on a portable record player. The depth and intensity of his grief was apparent and it was soon explained in his welcome to Horatio, who in turn reported the visitation of the ghost. It was an engrossing and very efficient entry to the rest of the play.

Then of course in Scene 2 we were into the action, with all the main characters stablishing themselves with vivid individuality. This scene also brought us the first of the great soliloquies, presented so imaginatively by allowing the surrounding action to fade into dimness and slow motion, and all attention to be focussed on Hamlet.

The other soliloquies followed the same style, perfectly creating the sense of the speaker’s inner concentration, completely oblivious to external events. The speeches were all beautifully delivered with attention to every subtle detail of meaning and emotional nuance. With close-ups on Cumberbatch’s face, we could literally follow the working of his mind. The speeches arose so naturally within their contexts that it was possible to believe that we were sharing silent thoughts, with none of the possible “stage-iness” that can sometimes dilute their effect.

This was particularly the case with ‘To be, or not to be…’ which in this production followed Hamlet’s dismissing Polonius with the words: ‘You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life’, which made a perfectly natural lead in to the soliloquy’s questions. The usual placing of this speech in the Nunnery scene, with Hamlet apparently but not very believably failing to notice Ophelia, must make it much more difficult for the actor to make clear what has prompted these thoughts.

All the soliloquies were retained, even the one from Act 4 scene 4, (How all occasions do inform against me) which is sometimes omitted. This was part of the well-defined sub-plot relating to the political and military relations between Denmark and Norway. In Act 1 scene 2 Claudius (Ciaran Hinds) gave a masterly exposition of the background story, which is often difficult to grasp, finishing with dispatching Cornelius and Voltimand on their mission to Norway. Then to accompany Marcellus’ query about the nightly toiling and 'daily cast of brazen cannon' there was an amazing Sound and Light impression of huge ironworks and mass production of heavy armaments. I cannot imagine how this was achieved, but it was a stunningly impressionistic momentary picture of preparations for war. Later the successful return of the ambassadors was given due emphasis; and then we met Fortinbras and his army as they marched towards Poland, reminding us of the futility of so much military action. Without this clear story line, Fortinbras could seem to have little relevance at the end of the play.
Photo from
The actors were nearly all very fine, with some interesting characterisations. Claudius was a powerful and ambitious man, who knew what he wanted and how to get it; Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) grew in stature as the play progressed. At first apparently colourless, she showed powerful responses to Hamlet’s upbraidings in the Bedroom scene, and came into her own during Ophelia’s madness, particularly as the possibility of Ophelia’s suicide suddenly occurred to her. She delivered the news of Ophelia’s death quite beautifully, in that very difficult speech: ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook….’ I did wonder, though, why Gertrude was robbed of her very last line, and why it was decided that Horatio should say that the drink was poisoned. This was her moment to show finally that she recognised the nature of the man she had married, and to make a desperate bid to save her son.

Horatio (Leo Bill) was a slightly eccentric but entirely devoted friend, unaffected by the grandeur of the court and always to be relied upon. He created a tenderly touching moment as he farewelled his friend, at Hamlet’s death.

Ophelia was unusual. From the start she was jittery and it appeared that it would take little to provoke a breakdown. The mad scene omitted the St. Valentine’s Day song, which left the impression that her distress arose almost entirely from her father’s death, with little reference to Hamlet’s treatment of her. A detail of the mad scene was the inclusion of lines spoken by other characters in other scenes, but here spoken by Ophelia. Her ever-present camera was an unexpected symbol, which served to remind us of the lack of privacy in the castle, and the constant sense of surveillance.

Polonius (Jim Norton) suggested a careful and reliable elder statesman; he even made notes to refer to when giving his son farewell advice. His role was considerably reduced, so that we did not see his nasty little plans to spy on Laertes and there was little of Hamlet’s baiting and ridicule of him as a senile has-been.

The Ghost (Karl Johnson) was unlike many versions I have seen: no weird distortions of his voice, no vaporous trails and eerie lighting. This was a middle-aged man, cut off in his prime, exceedingly cross about it, and clearly suffering all the pains of Purgatory that he hints of to Hamlet. A striking moment was when he tore open his military tunic to reveal his skin “bark’d about most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust” as he described the effects of the poison. Johnson also played delightfully a quick-witted Gravedigger, bringing just the right amount of light relief before the final horrors.

An interesting feature of the production was the attention given to the visiting Players, particularly the full Pyrrhus speech and the description of Hecuba. This gave a perfect entry to the ‘Oh what a rogue…’ soliloquy. We could see in Hamlet’s eyes the precise moment when he linked Hecuba with his own mother. Later, in preparing for the performance of The Mousetrap, the ‘Speak the speech’ instructions were delightful, with Hamlet suddenly realising that he really shouldn’t be telling these professionals how to do their jobs.

Throughout, there was tactful modernisation of the language, most of which worked smoothly, but substitutions were noticeable in the very well-known speeches. So, in the final scene, the King put a ‘jewel’ in the cup instead of ‘an union’, without violence to rhythm or meaning; but I thought it a pity, for instance, to sacrifice the peculiarly evocative phrase ‘in hugger-mugger to inter him’ referring to Polonius’s death, to be replaced by a dry legalistic description of what was done.

The entire performance was marked by superb clarity of speech and meticulous attention to the detail of the meaning, without ever losing a wonderful spontaneity. This attention to detail applied even to the minor characters: there was a perfect example when Horatio and the two guards tried to dissuade Hamlet from following the ghost. In their few short sentences they managed to suggest three differing personalities and therefore different attitudes to the situation.

The staging was impressive, with a huge set well used to suggest the various locations of the action. However, the introduction, for the second half, of piles of what I assume were supposed to be cinders, in great drifts all through the palace, was inexplicable to me and a distraction during the last scenes. It was obviously difficult for the actors to walk on them, and of course they had to be pushed aside for the duel scene. If it was intended to suggest the dissolution of Claudius’s reign I found it unnecessary, since he did after all remain king and in charge until the moment of his death. However, I hope somebody will explain to me what I have missed here. It is a small quibble about what was such a satisfying performance in so many ways.

The exciting duel displayed excellent fencing skills; it was short and sharp, with a clear increasingly deadly intent. The ferocity was thoroughly convincing.

Supported as he was by a fine team, this production belonged undeniably to Benedict Cumberbatch. Quite apart from the obvious magnitude of the role, he was Hamlet and he shared with his audience all his technical skill and emotional range to give us a memorable interpretation. In a pre-show interview with Melvyn Bragg Cumberbatch described his conviction that an actor has to ‘find the need to say’ his lines, to make the words fresh, and spoken as if for the first time. He did exactly that.