We have all been waiting for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, haven’t we? Haven’t we? Well, I don’t know. It’s the kind of role he should be thinking about, given where he is in his career, and there is no denying that a Cumberbatch Hamlet would be highly bankable. And there’s the rub. This production was always going to be an event rather than a production of Hamlet.
The tickets sold out in seconds. There were endless press nights, and much complaining from the production team that the press had reviewed the production during the preview nights). Worst of all, apparently, the director had moved the ‘To be’ speech to the beginning of the play, until critical outcry caused it to be moved back to its customary place.
I saw the play as a National Theatre live broadcast at the Gulbenkian cinema in Canterbury, and even this was an event, with both cinema and theatre pressed into service for a simultaneous showing. In fact, according to the person fronting the live broadcast from the Barbican, not only was the play on stage but every cinema in the complex was also broadcasting it, as well as it being broadcast worldwide. We were part of an EVENT.
And after all this, was it worth the fuss?
Yes. And, alas, no.
The short version is that Benedict Cumberbatch, much as I expected he would be, is a very good Hamlet. Unfortunately, he is stuck in an appalling production of Hamlet.
The long version? Well, where to begin?
There are two reviews in The Guardian of what I suppose I must call ‘the Cumberbatch Hamlet’, one of the theatrical production, one of the worldwide screening. Between them they encapsulate everything that seemed to me to be bad about this production. The first review pretty much nails my experience of watching it as a theatrical production. The second one pretty much explains all the reasons why I really didn’t want to be watching it as a theatrical production on screen.
My theatre posts endlessly wrestle with this conundrum of how one produces a cinematic experience that ‘faithfully’ recreates the sense of a theatrical performance, because I do realise that not everyone watching on screen wants what I want. I’m aware that some of my criticisms undoubtedly emerge from the fact that I really miss live theatre. Watching a performance on screen, while it can be good, just isn’t the same for me. Or, rather, in some respects, it’s so much better it’s really not like being at the theatre at all. I want to be in the theatre.
I’ve been watching Royal Shakespeare Company broadcasts, live and recorded, for the last couple of years, and they do a very decent job of conveying the sense of being at the theatre. Critically, they never lose sight of the fact that there is an audience present. I always feel that I’m watching a theatrical production, with occasional nods to the fact that I am seeing it from a slightly different perspective.
The Royal National Theatre follows a different philosophy, in that their broadcasts mostly seem to want to eliminate the audience altogether. We might see them briefly at the beginning, but once the play begins, they exist only as laughter or applause. The RNT’s productions seem to be staged with more of an eye as to how they will look like on camera. This isn’t a crime per se, but it seems to me to lose sight of the fact that even at the cinema I’m expecting to see a play, on a stage. I anyway think the RNT does best with more contemporary works – my favourite of the things I’ve seen on screen from there (Frankenstein not withstanding) is Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, which had a very plain staging and was simply filmed. There was no theatrical or cinematic fussiness and I could concentrate on the words and acting.
I’m not clear what the relationship is between the RNT and Sonia Friedman Productions, the company that staged this new Hamlet, but the screened version was produced under the aegis of NT Live. Consequently, I don’t know who made choices about camera angles and so forth, but for the purposes of this discussion I am going to assume that Lyndsey Turner, director of the play, was involved to some extent in things like camera positioning for the broadcasting, and that the play was originally designed with the understanding that it would be filmed and broadcast.
Because the first thing I need to say about the Cumberbatch Hamlet is that it’s impossible to ignore the play’s staging, even for a moment, during the performance. That might sound odd, because surely the whole point of a play is that it is a thing constructed to be performed on a stage? But there is staging and there is stagey, and this production falls heavily into the latter category. I remember someone once telling me that actors hate it when the curtain goes up and the audience applauds the set, because it has already shifted the audience’s focus away from the actors. While that doesn’t actually happen in this production, I nonetheless had a strong sense throughout the broadcast that I was being invited to mentally applaud the set. The staging (and for the purposes of this discussion I include set, business, lighting and music) was the dominant presence throughout, and it frequently got in the way of the actors.
Remember the decision to situate ‘To be or not to be’ at the beginning of the play? I could put together an argument that surely Shakespeare and his contemporaries were constantly shuffling around chunks of play, trying to get the right effect, so it’s not a problem for a contemporary director to do the same. It is an argument that would work in certain more experimental settings, like the Royal Court, but not, I think, on a ‘West End’ stage, which is, like it or not, a fairly conservative arena, where people are paying for a certain thing, and expect to get it.
It’s obvious looking at the shape of the production as it now is that Turner wanted to emphasise a point about Hamlet’s state of mind. The play begins, not on the battlements of Elsinore as is traditional, but in a room somewhere in the castle. The room is empty but for a few packing cases, and Hamlet is listening to an old record on a portable record player. This is, we are led to believe, all that is left to him of his father, who has of course recently died. inserting the ‘To be’ speech here was presumably intended to emphasise this point. Without it, the opening is very weak, but neither can I see what placing it here would achieve other than to emphasise something that will become clear anyway, that Hamlet is moody and introspective. Perhaps Turner wanted to head off the ‘mad or not’ dichotomy, but I’m not convinced it would have worked.
Hamlet is summoned to attend his mother’s marriage to his uncle, at which point, in a grand theatrical gesture, the backdrop is whisked away and we are transported to the cavernous hall of a very grand country house, with a staircase to one side, a balcony along the back of a stage, a doorway opening into a corridor and another doorway which seems to lead out to a porch. All the world’s a stage, but in this instance, it seems that Elsinore itself is intended to be the stage and contain the outside world within it. On those occasions when the action moved theoretically ‘outdoors’ it seemed more as if the outside world had irrupted into the world of Elsinore. This is most evident at the point when the players come to the castle and perform The Murder of Gonzago for the court. They perform first within a tiny theatre, like a toy, brought into the entrance hall, and then the Player King, in his role as Gonzago, steps down into the court audience, which itself sits among off-stage scenery, to sleep in an orchard composed of leafy twigs and dried flowers set in musical instruments (no, I don’t know why either. Improvisation?). Hamlet himself steps out of the audience to take on the role of the murderer. All of this is clearly intended to in some way blur boundaries, but I found it rather awkward.
However, what really did strike me about this production was how focused it was on the threat of war. In the other productions I’ve seen, the presence of Young Fortinbras on the borders has been a vague thing, rumbling away in the background as the Denmarks try to work out what to do with their problem child. Here, the implication seems to be that Hamlet’s behaviour is really very, very vexing, as he’s getting in the way of this war they’re trying to deal with. This might be an interesting way to examine Hamlet’s story, but in this instance I couldn’t help feeling it had emerged from the staging decisions rather than the other way round.
So, while the stage is filled with the various accoutrements of a war office – desks, telephones, maps, flocks of secretaries dressed in tailored serge or khaki, everyone clutching files or making notes, Claudius and Polonius in sashes to show their status, Gertrude in a vaguely Eva Peron hairdo, Hamlet appears in the middle of this in a toy soldier uniform, with a drum, marching up and down on the table. Later, he sits in a toy fort, surrounded by almost life-size toy soldiers, pretending to fire off his rifle at all and sundry. It’s a credit to Benedict Cumberbatch that he actually makes this seem entirely reasonable at that point – he’s a good physical actor, and has excellent comic timing – but OK, we get the point: toy fort, toy theatre, Hamlet is reverting to childhood and acting up because his mum has remarried barely two months after his dad died, and he’s not getting enough attention.
For the life of me, I still can’t work out why all the doors and windows had to be blown in at the end of the first part, when Claudius has decided that something had to be done about Hamlet once and for all. The stage is left covered in paper soot and fake rubble, which remains in the second half. I presume this is to indicate that any chance of family unity, and by implication Denmark’s own sovereignty, has now failed, but it’s all a bit Fall of the House of Usher. Not so much something being rotten in the state of Denmark as a complete architectural failure in search of a restoration project, with Young Fortinbras finally arriving to preside over everything like Kevin McCloud.
You will note too that the review of the screening praises the way in which the characters seem so tiny on the stage, as if to suggest ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport’ (wrong play, but you take my point). I grant you it’s been maybe fifteen years since I saw a play at the Barbican but my recollection is that the stage, while sufficiently capacious to accommodate Henry V’s surprisingly substantial army and a rainstorm in the production I saw (Branagh’s Henry V in 1985), is nowhere near as cavernous as the screening seems to indicate, while the auditorium, although large, was fairly intimate in atmosphere. Even in the cheap seats I never felt I was as far from the stage as the filming seemed to suggest one could be. So, again, I find myself wondering exactly what it is the theatre audience saw. To me, it seemed less that the screened version was making a point (and presumably a point that the theatre audience would not be experiencing) as that the cast appeared to be rattling around in an unfeasibly large space, which is odd when Hamlet is, to my mind, a fairly intimate sort of play, very interior. And if that is the case, why was I given this entirely different experience of the play from the audience in the theatre that night (this strikes me as a very Cameronian interpretation of ‘all in this together’. I suppose I could argue I was being compensated for having to see the play as a cinema goer, but it sits badly with my idea of what I thought I would be seeing).
Which leads me in turn to consider something else that particularly struck me about the on-screen staging. I entirely lost track of where the audience was in relation to the stage. To me, the balcony and staircase that dominated the stage was at the back of it, with the long corridor down which the rubble cascaded, up which Ophelia climbs once she has resolved to drown herself, at the side. Yet this makes no sense if the seated audience is to see Ophelia vanish from the stage, which means that I must have been ‘watching’ a good portion of the play from an angle not available to the audience, effectively from the wings. The implication seems to be that the balcony was set at a slight angle across the stage, but even so, it still suggests that what I saw is nowhere near what the audience in the theatre saw. Plus, if the stage was as enormous as the broadcast suggests, I got the benefit of many, many close-ups of Cumberbatch in a way that the theatre audience never could. So, lucky me, I guess, and poor theatre audience.
The inescapable conclusion of all this is that it was never intended to be a theatrical production in the proper sense of the word but was constructed from the outset as a thing to be filmed. Which is very different, I’d argue, from filming a theatrical production to turn into a film (see Julie Traymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is unequivocally a film, based on a theatrical production, and never pretending to be anything other than that). This might explain some of the other things that made me unhappy, not the least being the sound design, which emphasised every significant moment with huge crashing chords, and the lighting design, which performed a visual equivalent. Very little was left to the imagination. Much was elaborately signalled. And yet, every now and then there would be a delicious little moment, purely theatrical, such as when Hamlet’s father’s ghost descends into the grave; I’d spotted someone flipping up the trap door under the cover of dark, but it looked for all the world as though he was simply vanishing through the floor. The groundlings would have loved it. I certainly did, and it was probably the simplest special effect on display all night.
At other times, I found myself wondering about such things as how Hamlet would stab Polonius behind the arras when both arras and sharp pointy weapons were distinctly lacking. As it turned out, the curtains of the toy theatre were pressed into unconvincing service as the arras and even as I’d wondered about the dagger, my eye drifted to the display of weaponry on the wall, and it became obvious – the reverse Chekov principle, so to speak. However, given that the play appeared to be set in Upper Romanovia, it did make a nonsense of the last act: Claudius’s sudden desire, in the midst of ruin and gunfire, to see Hamlet and Laertes fight a demonstration duel with foils seems bizarre. One could almost see an unvoiced WTF? forming on Cumberbatch’s face as he considered the proposal.
The one thing I can’t speak to as it’s been so long since I read it is how much Turner has moved the script around. ‘To be or not to be’ was restored to something approaching its customary place, but as I noted earlier the play no longer begins with the sighting of Hamlet Senior’s ghost, and it really does feel wrong. We also thought some of the other speeches had been moved around or edited. I know this happens all the time and we don’t really notice, but there was in this instance something oddly breathless about the play. Events frequently arrived suddenly and unexpectedly; neither of us was convinced that the grave-digging scene was quite as we’d seen it before, and the whole of the second half seemed generally very perfunctory, especially the final collective death scene, with bodies dropping like ninepins. Perhaps Turner wanted to avoid the long, drawn-out savouring of Hamlet’s death but something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark by this point.
Having myself now done the unforgiveable and devoted over two thousand words to the play’s staging even before talking about the actors, let’s turn to them. Front and centre, Benedict Cumberbatch. Actually, the one thing that is so very, very good about Cumberbatch is his sense of timing. We can talk about the energy and physicality of his performance as Hamlet, but it’s really all about the timing. He brightens the play every time he is on the stage.
I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of designating his Hamlet as mad or feigning madness, as has been the habit. Neither is, I think, appropriate in this case. Cumberbatch’s is a very confused Hamlet, and that’s not entirely down to having to fight his way out of a very confused staging. I found myself thinking that in this instance, here is a man who has not been allowed to mourn properly. It’s been barely two months since his father died, he’s been dragged back from university to find himself attending a wedding with added funeral, he’s surrounded by people telling him to brace up because there is war imminent. There is no room here for him to process his own feelings. He throws tantrums, yes; he lashes out, undoubtedly. He’s surrounded by people exhorting him to get on with life, and life is defined as war.
The problem here, of course, is that Hamlet seems not to be that interested in war, or in politics. You wonder, in a way, why Claudius didn’t just let him go back to his studies. Hamlet seems here to be less concerned about the usurpation of his kingdom, more about the usurpation of his mother’s bed, but even that I didn’t find convincing. Mostly, he seemed to want to be on his own.to grieve. And this, perhaps is the problem at the heart of this production. Turner can’t seem to reconcile the exteriority of war – the excitement of uniforms and noise filling the stage – with Hamlet’s necessary interiority. The latter is frequently lost to the big gesture.
Both Gertrude and Claudius seem to enjoy the imminence of war, as though it gave them purpose even though they’re revealed to be politically inept – because obviously, the thing you do when you have secured an assurance that Young Fortinbras isn’t going to war with you is to then let him march through your lands on his way to an irrelevant skirmish somewhere else. What the elder Hamlet would have done about it, had he lived, I’m not sure – he makes his appearances in a rotting military costume, which might be a clue, and perhaps also an explanation for why the younger Hamlet dresses himself up as a red-coated soldier. But given that that Claudius and Gertrude favour a more modern style of battle dress, one wonders if the production is pointing at a theoretical clash – old school versus modern military methods. If so, it doesn’t really come to anything. The fact that Claudius has effectively usurped Hamlet’s position as king is addressed only obliquely, when Hamlet, in The Murder of Gonzago, assumes a coat on the back of which is painted ‘King’.
Of course, one might argue that Young Fortinbras’s refusal to obey his uncle, Old Fortinbras, stands also as a reproach to Young Hamlet, as is the readiness of the populace to proclaim Laertes king, but this is never really explored. Perhaps the strongest moment comes when Hamlet, on his way to the ship to England, passes through Young Fortinbras’s camp, and it suddenly dawns on him what’s happening. At this point he seems to decide that he has been focusing on the wrong thing, and it’s time to go back and save his country from his family. It is, of course, already far too late but in the fencing match we get a glimpse of that Hamlet, the dashing young man who might have been king. At the same time, would that Hamlet have even given in to Claudius’s command that he fight Laertes.
I can’t say I warmed to either Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius or Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude, at least not in the first part of the play. Hinds seemed somewhat out of place, as though he had stumbled in from a film about gangsters, while Hille was performing generic hard-faced practical bitch. Things began to improve at the point where Hamlet observes his uncle’s soliloquy and debates whether to kill him there and then. The scene was genuinely powerful, perhaps because it was stripped of flummery and focused instead on two people acting their socks off. In the second part, confronted with Ophelia’s madness, both Hinds and Hille seemed genuinely moved but unable to adequately respond. Again, I think, because it’s impossible to do anything other than to take this sequence straight, without gimmicks (well, until the crashing chords at the end, to tell us this is a dramatic moment – no shit). It did strike me, though, when Gertrude talks about having imagined that Hamlet and Ophelia would marry that you really never would have guessed in the first part of the play. OK, partly it is that everyone is telling Ophelia that this relationship won’t work, can’t be allowed to work – in this production Laertes is more unsympathetic as a character than I recall seeing before – but neither has there been the remotest hint of an indication from anyone who isn’t Hamlet that this might have been on the cards.
And Ophelia, let us talk of Ophelia, and Sian Brooke’s storming performance, the best thing in the play after Cumberbatch himself. Actually, better than Cumberbatch. The presentation of Ophelia is the one genuinely interesting thing about this production. This is no dalliance that turns sour because Hamlet is either feigning madness or genuinely ill. From the first moment we see Ophelia she is nervous, twitchy, her speech stumbling; she finds it hard to meet anyone’s gaze. In fact, Ophelia constantly carries a camera and photographs everything, as if only through the camera’s lens can she actually see the world. It stands as a shield between her and the world. She has no job as war looms (unlike Gertrude, and the other court women). The fact that she has no autonomy, no purpose other than to make a marriage of some sort is heavily underlined. She would, in another world, be a war photographer, or reporter but clearly no one is going to allow her to do anything other than stay home and play the piano. In her ‘mad’ scene, she will drag a huge trunk down the stairs; after she’s gone, Gertrude will open it and see huge piles of photographs. It’s hard not to read that trunk as a coffin in which Ophelia has buried her creativity and her hopes for the future.
Instead, she is constantly lectured to by men – Laertes, Polonius, Claudius, and Hamlet himself. I’d never really noticed this before but it is painfully evident here. If we assume that Hamlet was her only hope of escaping her overbearing family, for values of escape, his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ is a bitter rejection. In which case, I suppose we are to read Ophelia’s suicide as a means of taking control of her life. And it is about taking control. Brooke’s mad scene is heart-breaking – not a word I use lightly – and the most powerful piece of acting in the entire production. You see the moment when she makes a decision, when she knows what she has to do, and the determination with which she marches up the hill of rubble towards the light, towards the outdoors, away from Elsinore is just extraordinary. It’s at that moment you might just begin to reassess the production.
But so much else is unsatisfactory. Jim Norton’s Polonius never really rises above caricature. Now, I know one might argue that Polonius is nothing but a caricature but Oliver Ford Davies showed that it is entirely possible to produce a Polonius who is a little fussy, a little annoying, a little too fond of dispensing good advice, but who is trying to do his best for his daughter, and for his king, no matter how misplaced his ideas. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes was dull, and Leo Bill’s Horatio seemed to have little to do except turn up at intervals, looking worried. I’d always seen Horatio as the one person holding Hamlet together, however imperfectly, but here, Horatio’s role seemed negligible. I forget who said to me that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam) were portrayed as Hamlet’s hobbit sidekicks, but sadly, they were spot on. Karl Johnson, on the other hand, showed how to make sufficient of comparatively little, in a lovely cameo as the Grave Digger, marrying the spiritual and the prosaic, as he digs a grave, listens to the radio, throws skulls casually across the stage, pretends a leg bone is a microphone.
So, while it may have been an event, I’m not convinced that this production of Hamlet was great theatre. Indeed, had I paid to see it at the Barbican, I would have considered myself to have been robbed. Cumberbatch is a pleasingly complex Hamlet, but I think the production itself is a bit of a mess. It’s not structured in such a way as to give the actors a reasonable chance. Cumberbatch and Brooke shine, but the others struggle to make much of an impact.