On the day Cumberbatch and Shakespeare fans head to cinemas around the world to watch a live-streamed performance courtesy of the National Theatre, I thought it was high time I actually got round to posting my review of the much talked about Hamlet.
A few Saturdays ago (shockingly, over a month ago now) I had the pleasure of catching the matinee performance of Hamlet at the Barbican, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. (Aka that bloke off the telly what plays Sherlock, does wonderful impressions of Alan Rickman and is so hot right now you wouldn’t believe).
The long-awaited performance was actually the first time I’d see Hamlet live. I’ve watched a couple of film productions, and (skim)read the actual play while studying for my BA, but I’ve never seen it performed on stage. As I am a sucker for Shakespearean tragedies (and a Cumberbatch fangirl) I was excited to see how Lyndsey Turner had executed her production. I’d deliberately avoided reviews after an early Internet browse one morning left me so excited about my forthcoming theatre trip I had to go and calm down with a nice cup of tea. I was a smidgen overexcited.
Armed only with the knowledge that there’d been some huge kerfuffle about the reordering of key scenes in the play (To be at the beginning or not to be, that is the question), I eagerly made my way to the Barbican with my just as eager friend. We nervously took our seats, unsure how things would turn out. Would we hate Benedict’s performance? Would a Cumberbitch do something markedly uncouth? How good really was the view from our seats? And after all the waiting, was this really happening now, in this very room? (The answers: Nope. Thankfully no, otherwise I’d probably be writing this at the pleasure of Her Majesty. Not bad. And, apparently, yes).
From the opening line (no longer that controversial question), I was welcomed back into the world of Shakespeare. What timeframe this Hamlet’s world actually abided in I’m not sure. Not Elizabethan, but not 100% contemporary either. But as I like adaptations of Shakespeare that are set in the “present” but keep the old Shakespearean language, that isn’t a criticism. I just wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know. Was I missing some clever reference to modern day Europe? Had I studied Hamlet in depth, I would have spent more time contemplating the changes Turner had made to the structure and setting rather than simply enjoying the performance.
And what a performance it was. My top three highlights were:
1. I will never look at toy soldiers in the same way again after Cumberbatch’s madness scenes. Dressed as a glorious Nutcracker-like (or at least how my mind reimagines the animation of my childhood) toy soldier, Hamlet prances along a table top with a drum. Later, when Goldstein and co appears, Hamlet hides out in a rather wonderful adult-sized fort. Still dressed like a toy soldier.
2. The actors in slow-mo. A wonderfully executed device that often serruptiously changed the onstage mood while another character absorbed the audience in their soliloquy. We’re first introduced to it towards the end of the wedding scene between Claudius and Hamlet’s mother. I was fascinated – and suitably impressed – by the cast as they captured something that a modern audience is so used to seeing cameras achieve in a film production. To my delight, they didn’t just do it once either. On several occasions you’d catch just a foot slowly moving or someone standing where someone else had been sat. Seriously, if you’re going to watch the live broadcast tonight, keep an eye out for it. And remember this is LIVE and no camera trick.
3. The set design. This too has come under fire from reviewers but frankly I loved it. It takes skill to create a set that works for all scenes with minimal changes. And oh my goodness, I want that castle interior! I’m also intrigued as to how long it takes to clear all the bloody leaves (or whatever it is) at the end of each performance.
So after six weeks or more, those were my three big highlights; toy soldier, slow-mo and set design. Oh and I want Ophelia’s yellow top.
I do have one question though: Why does Horatio insist on going everywhere with his damned rucksack?! Honestly, the guy never takes it off. And as far as I can recall, hardly ever takes anything out of it.
If I could, I would go and watch the live stream in theatres tonight. Not least because I want to be able to be close enough to see the actors’ faces as they live out their emotions. A telltale sign, perhaps, that movies and TV dramas have captured me. But the real reason I want to see it again? Because I would love to relive those three hours of my life once more. I desperately tried to take in every second of this performance and commit it to memory to treasure forever. It’s Shakespeare, it’s real and it’s one of the most sought-after British actors of my generation performing on stage in front of a live audience. And that is worth watching more than once.