Friday, October 23, 2015

Hamlet by William Shakespeare - Benedict Cumberbatch

My wife and older daughters saw the livestream of this with me at a local theater. 

I’m not much of a television watcher, so I somehow avoided all previous exposure to Benedict Cumberbatch. Sure, his name was everywhere, of course, and I knew friends who were partisans.

One always has a bit of skepticism about celebrity versions of great works. Was the actor chosen because he or she had the chops, or because the name would draw an audience? Fortunately, in this case, it was the former.

Hamlet is an interesting play to stage. It is so well known that any departure from tradition will be noted with either approval or disapproval. Details will be dissected and analyzed, and no element will be too small to avoid critique. Director Lyndsey Turner took on the task, with mixed success, in my opinion. Some of the details were outstanding, while others were a bit puzzling.

I’ll start with the one that I still haven’t quite figured out. The costumes spanned a number of eras. For the most part, they seemed to draw heavily on European militarist dictatorships of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The set, likewise, evoked this era. But there were weird modern touches that I suspect were intended to illuminate the characters. For example, Horatio was dressed as a stereotypical modern hipster, complete with tacky tattoos. (I’m pretty sure they were fake, but if not, Leo Bill’s grandchildren are going to have fun at his expense some day.) Ophelia, likewise, was “modern,” after a fashion. She carries around an old school camera (1920s or 1930s era, I believe), and dresses in clothes that sort of evoke the 30s. (My source, the lovely Amanda, who knows these things, said that her clothes weren't true 30s clothes, but more of a modern nod to the era.) I’m not enough of a fashion maven to understand exactly what Hamlet himself was supposed to evoke, but I’m pretty sure Shakespeare never imagined him in a David Bowie t-shirt. I guess the younger generation is truly out of touch with the older…

On the other hand, the use of light and shadow was fantastic. It must have taken some tinkering to get it right, but lighting from unusual angles cast distorted shadows of the characters that indeed fit their character or state of mind. While some scenes were brightly lit, many more were bathed in shadows, more blue than anything, but blue darkness, rather than blue light, if that makes any sense.

At the end of the third act, right before intermission, a wind starts blowing grit of some sort through Elsinore. By the time the play resumes, there is a thick layer of the stuff. On the big screen, it wasn’t possible to get a handle on exactly what it is. One is reminded of volcanic ash, perhaps. In any event, both my wife and I had the same thought: cleaning this stuff up between shows has to be a gargantuan task. Poor stagehands.

Claudius watches as the wind blows the cinders into Elsinore.
This is just one example of the many dramatic lighting effects.

The casting is also a mixed bag, which is surprising for such a major production. One would expect that talent would be in abundant supply in a major city such as London. None of us were terribly thrilled with Ophelia (Sian Brooke), although she was at least better after she went mad. Just not that convincing as a regular person. Horatio (Leo Bill), likewise, was a bit flat. I would have expected him in a local production, where students or amateurs were used to fill in the minor parts, but not in something with this budget. He wasn’t bad, just unmemorable, except for the costumes.

Other cast members were outstanding, however. Polonius (Jim Norton) was such an insufferable prig that one almost was relieved when he finally met his end. In this interpretation, he carried around a little book of aphorisms to quote at the right time. Gertrude (Anastasia Hille), likewise, was memorable. It was hard to tell exactly how much she knew of Claudius’ murder, but she was conflicted about her marriage. Very expressive acting, and plenty of ambiguity. Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) was well acted as well. Often, he is portrayed as a simple monster, devoid of conscience. In this case, I believe he matched Shakespeare’s intent, particularly when paired with that of King Hamlet. The elder Hamlet has nothing but contempt for Claudius, raising the question of sibling rivalry as a motivation for his murder, rather than raw ambition.

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!

In contrast to Hamlet pere’s view, Claudius is presented as being a competent king in this version. He adeptly handles the foreign threat (which King Hamlet probably failed to anticipate), and adroitly handles the personalities of his court.

Even in his attempts at repentance, Claudius seems genuinely sorrowful. He feels he has to eliminate Hamlet, of course, but wishes that he didn’t face such a choice. The problem is that he knows that he cannot truly “repent,” unless he is willing to give up the spoils of his sin, namely his crown and his wife. Thus has many an intended repentance come to grief. And thus have many a politician and preacher tried to seek pardon while retaining their position.  

But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?

The star of the show, as it should be, was Hamlet himself. Cumberbatch threw himself into the role in a thoroughly physical and emotional way. In the interview shown before the main show, he talked about having to eat constantly to avoid losing weight, and taking the play moment to moment, oblivious to his future lines. All this showed. In the closeups, he was covered in sweat, his body strained by contortion. He seemed to be genuinely living the part. In some cases, it was uncomfortable to see him that close, at least to this introvert. The gestures were scaled to the stage, with a distant audience, and the level of emotion at a short distance was excruciating. An immersive experience, though, and the intensity fit the play.

One of the ultimate questions any actor portraying Hamlet must answer is “what is Hamlet?” Is he a madman? A tortured genius? The villain of the play? For Cumberbatch, Hamlet is unequivocally good at heart. His hesitation isn’t primarily a result of cowardice, but a moral repulsion to the deeds he is being compelled to commit. One feels he would prefer to be left to his own grief, rather than drawn into the maelstrom of politics and revenge by his late father. The well known soliloquy can be quoted from memory by many of us who had to memorize it in high school. Cumberbatch did a fine job with it. But I was particularly struck by an earlier passage, in which Hamlet wonders if he is a coward, noting that the actor he has hired is better able to conjure up the necessary passion - and that for a fiction.

Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!

But it isn’t just a lack of resolve. All Hamlet has to go on is the word of a ghost, which is hardly enough for even the limited due process of Medieval politics.

Perhaps the most surprising scene for me, one I didn’t remember as well as I should, occurs at the beginning. Hamlet has made the social faux pas of showing up to his uncle’s coronation dressed in mourning. Of course, it has been less than two months since his father’s death, but Hamlet probably is also protesting the suddenness of the wedding. Still, Claudius has the nerve to lecture Hamlet about how he should feel about all of this.

'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart?

Heh! Everyone dies, particularly fathers, so be a man and stop grieving. I’m not sure why I hadn’t noticed this before, but maybe I myself was too accepting of the societal belief that men shouldn’t cry. There is more to it than that, though. This is one of the teachings from Bill Gothard’s cult that so many friends have suffered from: negative emotions are “ungodly.” To show pain, anger, grief, frustration, or hurt - particularly as a child - was considered “rebellion.” And here, Claudius illustrates why this is demanded. Hamlet’s feelings are a terrible inconvenience to his wishes. He wants to have a nice little wedding and coronation with everyone happy and compliant, and Hamlet won’t play ball. And that is the point. When the “authorities” are the only ones who matter, inconvenient emotions by the underlings just won’t fly. Better to be “manly” and suck it up. Or, to quote the most quotable movie ever, “Get used to disappointment.” Proof, perhaps, that there is little if anything about human nature that escaped Shakespeare - or the Greek tragedians for that matter.

But Claudius has it wrong. Hamlet cannot simply choose to end his grief. And eventually, Hamlet’s suspicions that something is rotten in the state of Denmark turn out to be correct.

While I often take the younger kids to plays, this one was a long one, and was scheduled to run late at night. Thus, we opted to just take the older girls. (Age 12 and 11.) They were quite excited, particularly my second daughter, who has always had a morbid streak. (Well, we did name her Cordelia, so perhaps it was inevitable.) The prospect of nearly everyone dying at the end was a feature, not a bug, as far as she was concerned. Both of them very much enjoyed this production.


  1. Looking forward to seeing it. Very glad encore presentations in LA will go all the way through December!

  2. The most notable thing about Cumberbatch to me is that he does indeed inhabit every role he takes, not just the ones that more or less fit his face and frame. I noticed this when I saw a clip of him in a bit part of a movie where he played a woman's boss that was "creepy"--sexually harassing and aggressive in a just-enough-to-not-be-liable-for-legal-action way. I had seen him in appealing roles before that and was unprepared for how genuinely icked out I was after watching him as the bad guy. (Although his "American" accent in that scene was hilariously bad--he was younger then.) Generally actors that are good at showing goodness (or at least the kind of character you empathize with) aren't as great at showing badness. He's a talent I always enjoy, and I REALLY hope I can catch Hamlet.

    1. They do have some encore performances, although Bakersfield just got the one date, from what I can tell. Here is the website: