An unremarkable Manchester evening in October. A half full cinema. A box of Pick ‘n’ Mix screaming to be tucked into. It was the National Theatre’s Encore broadcast of their 2015 production of Hamlet starring, sighs at the ready, the brilliant and universally adored Benedict Cumberbatch.
Three hours and twenty minutes was time well spent. Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Danish Prince was a triumph, and will secure his place in a tradition which includes the greatest actors of the times, from Laurence Olivier to David Tennant.
None of the charm of the theatre was lost in the broadcast, with the camera (mostly) focussed on the whole stage at once, rather than zooming in on the ‘most important’ bits.
Director Lyndsey Turner chooses to cut the first scene with its sentinels standing guard, foreboding, and intrigue. She selects in its stead a picture of the solitary Hamlet pouring over his father’s old possessions and weeping, alongside the melancholy song of a record player, followed by his friendly meeting with Leo Bill’s Horatio.
Hamlet’s grief, not the kingdom or a mystery, is front-focussed. This reduces the dramatic irony later (we’d usually know about Hamlet’s father’s ghost before he does) but increases our sympathy with the young prince; we’re now introduced to him straight away, and, through this loss of superior knowledge, are on the same level as him.
Emphasis is also placed on Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship, which is often simply an undercurrent amidst the grandeur of to bes and not to bes. Though the Shakespearean language is authentic, the pair are reimagined as modern-day students. Horatio, as Hamlet’s confidant, advisor, and dear friend, who is one of the few left standing by the end, and who Hamlet entreats with his dying breath to tell his story, is given due importance in this production.
All scenes use the grand hall and stately staircase of the castle as their base, accentuating the importance of the state and the monarchy which pervades the play and provides the pressures which ultimately ruin Hamlet. With flowers strung across the ceiling for a banquet and the king, queen, and courtiers dressed to the nines, it is an almost fairytale setting and retains the stately grandeur of the 16th century court. But for the everyday scenes we shift to a 1940s style office, where Gertrude and Claudius manage their affairs of state, or Hamlet in a David Bowie t-shirt and glam-rock tailcoat. This weird hybrid of ancient and modern hammers home Shakespeare’s famed universality.
After the play within the play brings simmering distrust and suspicion to a climax, the glass of the grand castle windows implodes to form heaps, creating a brilliant landscape for the grave-digging scene, but also serving symbolically to show the exposure which has now taken place. Appearance, façade, deceit are shattered, and reality comes to the fore in the home and heart of the corrupt king. Gertrude stands amongst the wreckage in her night-gown, a nod towards her mature but undiminished sexuality which causes Hamlet such a problem but which, on the whole, this production tones down.
When scenes change, the bustle is fascinating. The sped-up passage of in-between events adds a genius touch of reality; we know that time passes between the acts and scenes (Claudius and Gertrude must experience Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ before we see them get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the case, and, crucially, Ophelia’s suicide occurs between scenes to make it all the more a fringe issue to Hamlet’s more pressing masculine and princely struggles), but this makes that unmissable, fundamental to the action which we do see. The closet scene, for example, of which our interpretation crucially depends on Ophelia’s report of it, is here shown fleetingly at full-speed, but it’s enough to colour our perception of the following scene.
And Sian Brooke’s Ophelia is certainly interesting. Not especially submissive or fawning, she seems on-edge throughout, as if, clothed as a modern woman, she’s painfully aware of her oppression and is desperate to ensure she plays her part, in every sense, correctly. This nervousness I found off-putting at times – but my discomfort may have been exactly the intention. The heavy old camera which she carries everywhere and clings to with fervour seems to suggest that she is the one who sees things as they really are; that she understands Hamlet’s behaviour more insightfully and yet less boastfully than her conniving father, and that she clearly sees the oppression of women which is almost painful to the modern reader but is trapped, by Shakespeare’s script, and by the codes of the time in which she is acting her character, from rebelling. No wonder she goes mad.
Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship is intriguing, and I struggle to fathom the behaviour on both sides with just the text to go on. I liked the interpretation in this production that theirs was a loving relationship (rather than a dalliance on Hamlet’s part); it adds to Hamlet’s (and Ophelia’s) tragedy by emphasising the youth and prospects which are sacrificed to Hamlet’s fulfilling his role as a man and a prince, and avenging his father. ‘Get thee to a nunnery!’ is an imperative command to the side of womankind which Hamlet sees his mother representing, and it seems that even while he slates Ophelia for being a member of the fairer sex, he’s conscious that she doesn’t fit the portrait of women which tortures him.
Other actors, too, bring their own flair to Shakespeare’s immortals. Notably, Ciarán Hinds’s cool-cat, deadpan Claudius who gradually exhibits more emotion as his crime unravels, and Jim Norton’s brilliantly balanced Polonius, enough of the fool to make us laugh out loud without undermining his credibility. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes is imagined as a caring brother and son, an all-round good guy, whose pride and grief leads him into morally questionable league with Claudius, but whose final apology and repentance to Hamlet feels genuine. For me, Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude lacked the depth which this complex character demands, and bets seemed hedged between positive and negative interpretations of her motivations.
It cast men and women equally in the minor roles, and balanced the original racial homogeneity of both prominent and lesser characters, which added a diversity to the piece that didn’t intrude on Shakespeare’s original conception.
And, finally, I can’t wax lyrical enough about Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. I really believed that I was watching a young man struggling under the weight of familial pressure, grief, self-doubt and accusation, and on the brink of suicide. He quite clearly grasped the magnitude, the importance of the soliloquies in this piece, understood their crucial role in our sympathy or antipathy towards the character, and took the best advantage of his chance to gain and keep a hold on our hearts even as our faith in his resolution wavered. In some instances, the rest of the players froze, the dark falling around them, whilst Hamlet lamented and despaired, a detail which at once brilliantly dramatized them and made them more believable, as though we were being shown the thoughts and mental lamentations which had been running through Hamlet’s head throughout the preceding scenes. From the hilarious antics of his ‘antic disposition’ and his witty mockery of Polonius to the existential questioning and deep melancholy of the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, Cumberbatch captured this complex creation with a finesse and unwavering consistency which showed an impressive depth of connection with and inhabitance of the character whose fate we have lamented for centuries, whilst still managing to make the role feel fresh and personal.
This production dazzlingly exhibits the brilliant dynamism of Shakespeare; it moves between large philosophical questions and farcical humour as seamlessly as you could wish. It exposes Hamlet as more than just revenge, action vs inaction, the Oedipus complex, and the highest net mortality rate in a Shakespearean tragedy. It shows a love lost to grief and duty, it shows friendship and betrayal, alienation between a once loving mother and son, the tragedy of a young girl reduced to a dependent shell by the patriarchy, and a family torn apart by pride and guilt.
In Hamlet’s own words, the purpose of acting, and literature more generally, is ‘to hold the mirror up to nature’, and this is a play which has had the power to do so for over 400 years.