What a fascinating age of Shakespeare appreciation we live in. There have been many recent big-star film adaptations of the Bard's work, covering a wide variety of settings and approaches, among them Julie Taymor’s 2010 gender-bending Tempest with Helen Mirren; UK Film’s 2012 action-movie-ethos Coriolanus starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler; and Joss Whedon’s black-and-white, modernized Much Ado.
Even the recent brouhaha concerning the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's ambitious project to adapt/translate all 37 of the Bard's plays to contemporary English points to our complicated relationship with the man from Stratford. And although we may argue about what is and is not "pure" Shakespeare (as if there ever were such a thing), or the merits of live productions versus movie treatments, it's hard not to love being able to go to your local cinema and witness a filmed, simulcast production of the fastest-selling production in British theater history, starring a beloved television and film actor.
The National Theatre, as part of its NT Live series of broadcasting live (or in some countries' case, as with the U.S., previously filmed) productions around the globe, offers the chance for hundreds of thousands of people to see Academy Award-nominated Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch perform the "role of roles" in Hamlet.
I've been to several previous NT Live simulcasts, and other than a few diehard Bardophiles, the movie theater is typically nearly empty. This all changed in a big way on Thursday, at least at the Angelika Film Center-Dallas, where I saw Hamlet. The Angelika sold so many tickets to the tragedy that the screeing was moved to a larger theater within the complex, and even then it was nearly full to the rafters.
The happy convergence of a popular actor starring in Shakespeare's most beloved tragedy, and even some negative preview criticisms about set design and the placement of the "To be or not to be," speech, all came together to create tremendous buzz for this production, which runs through the end of October at London's Barbican Theatre.
Young-yet-quite-accomplished director Lyndsey Turner’s vision of a modern, dark and almost nightmarish Denmark is uneven; however, its numerous bright spots transcend most of its blemishes. The play opens on disconsolate Hamlet sitting on the floor of a room empty except for a few wooden crates and a phonograph. He is listening to "Nature Boy" and looking at photo albums when he is interrupted by his friend, a tattooed hipster Horatio (Leo Bill), and off we go on a wild ride.
The sad, listless Hamlet is soon replaced with a manic, raging (yet controlled), clever and very funny Dane. Given his fine work on Sherlock, we know Cumberbatch can play introspective and enigmatic, but this is not that kind of Hamlet. Kudos to Turner and Cumberbatch for developing a protagonist who is as dynamic as the character Shakespeare wrote, but also infused with a hypermodern humanity that reveals loads within.
Some have quibbled with this production's manifestation of Hamlet's "mania" as a toy soldier, but Cumberbatch showcases his comedy chops, and thematically it highlights the war surrounding Denmark. This Hamlet's madness radiates out to all around him, without infecting himself.
Cumberbatch's Hamlet is rational, sane and open to constant self-discovery. Sometimes the actor is too, too clever—more like Sherlock than the Danish prince—but it works. Yes, his "To be" is earlier in the play than it should be (although not at the very beginning, as it was in previews), yet it's still arresting, and his "What a piece of work is a man" speech is transcendent. Ciarán Hinds as Claudius provides a fantastic foil. The new king is drunk with power, a glad-hander who likes to lecture and is ultimately symptomatic of what is rotten in Denmark. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's Laertes is propulsive and utterly convincing. Also superb is Jim Norton as Polonius, who is more absent-minded professor than doddering fool.
Much less successful, and the only blights on this production, are Ophelia (Sian Brooke) and Gertrude (Anastasia Hille). Brooke is effective early on, as Ophelia acts as observer: She takes pictures, or sits in the background playing the piano (her duet with Laertes is lovely). However, she starts out as childlike and faltering, almost touched in her fragility, so her crossing into madness is less descent and more fait accompli.
Hille shines in the recounting of Ophelia's death, but is mostly a nonpresence before and after. Turner stages the closet scene with no bed (a rarity these days), but this serves only to highlight the complete lack of any kind of chemistry—maternal, Freudian or otherwise—between the queen and her son.
Karl Johnson's Ghost is more Dickensian shade than commanding spirit; his Gravedigger is much better. Back to what's good: Es Devlin's design is phenomenal. Devlin designed the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony, so she can perform on scales grand and incredibly detailed, and it shows here.
Some critics have written that Devlin's set is so great that it almost overshadows the action. Not true; it enhances the play. Elsinore is dark, dominated by blue hues with intricately patterned wall treatments, royal furniture and a sweeping staircase. All the better to show off Jane Cox's flickering, often moody lighting during slow-motion sequences, and when Claudius sends Hamlet off to England and a storm of dust, ashes and debris cover the stage for the rest of the play.
True, watching a play onscreen in a movie theater full of popcorn-munching is not the same as being there in person. However, there is a similar energy, and one that differs from merely watching a film.
Thursday night much laughter, gasps of delight and spontaneous applause accompanied the screening. Nothing could be the same as seeing Hamlet live at the Barbican, but it's still a pretty damn good opportunity. We can all probably agree on that.
» Hamlet continues with the following screenings.
- 7pm Monday Oct. 19 at Angelika Dallas.
- 2pm Wednesday Oct. 21 at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.