Hamlet Review: The National Theatre Live Event Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

My dog-eared edition of Hamlet
On October 15th, I witnessed the record-setting telecast of The National Theatre's Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I have had the privilege of watching several professional performances of this particular play, so I was eager to see their interpretation. It was certainly worth the lines and four hours of theatre seats! I wanted to share some of the elements of this performance that I especially enjoyed.


As with most Shakespeare plays, Hamlet can be done with extremely little in the way of set design. Other performances I have seen (including The Royal Shakespeare Company's production starring David Tennant in 2009) have been a tad drab. However, The National Theatre's set, designed by Es Devlin, was interesting. There were different levels and spaces on which to conduct scenes and the set pieces were used to great effect. At the end of Act III, all the doors were thrown open and debris blew onto the stage to emphasize Claudius' declaration that he would have Hamlet killed in England (Hamlet Act IV, Scene 3). When we returned from intermission, Coal had been piled up on the stage all over the set, facilitating outdoor scenes like Ophelia's burial and indoor scenes alike, while stressing the degrading mentality of all characters. The set supported the madness theme.


The stage directions Shakespeare provides are also minimal, so I was also very impressed with this production. Turner made two choices by which I was particularly pleased. First, all of the scenes ran into each other. There was no pause between them, even when one occurred in the same space as a large dining table had been required the scene before. Unneeded set pieces were moved off tastefully and cleverly while the actors continued. The constant movement cut down on the run time considerably. Second, Hamlet's soliloquies were delivered while the other actors suddenly slowed down. As a result, it seemed as if we witnessed Hamlet's mind wander while life continued about him, and he was only rarely on stage alone. It made these long speeches more pleasant and gave Hamlet the attribute of retreating from life rather than seeking isolation. It was an interesting distinction.


As I mentioned, I've seen several professional Hamlets, so I do, in fact, have rather little to say about Cumberbatch's performance. He was emotive and well-spoken. I have nothing bad to say about his interpretation of Hamlet. However, I was extremely impressed with Sian Brooke's Ophelia. The tragedy of her character was felt even before she went completely mad. Her abandoned suitcase of photographs and solitary barefoot climb up a pile of coal to her last exit, witnessed by Gertrude, made her death impactful instead of trite; Hamlet's distress at her death arose from lost love instead of mere guilt. Gertrude's own decline in the second half of the production mirrored Ophelia's and lent a complexity to her character as well.


Altogether I enjoyed this production and would highly recommend it when it becomes available on DVD/Bluray. Every element of the performance worked with the others to provide a succinct, theme-driven whole.


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