National Theatre Live recently did an encore screening of their production of Hamlet based in London, England from sheer demand. Their take on the iconic play is truly refreshing. Everything from the cast’s performances to the score transports you into the minds and hearts of Denmark.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance of Hamlet is sensitive and compelling. From his playful and brainy antic disposition to his riveting delivery of the “to be or not to be” speech, Cumberbatch becomes Hamlet so convincingly that his soliloquies seem to carry you through the character’s innermost workings. However, at certain points of his performance he falls into the familiar witty rhythms of fast-pace speeches reminiscent of his past roles.
In the stellar performance of Cumberbatch, the supporting cast does a good job keeping up. Horatio (Leo Bill) is Hamlet’s whimsical best buddy sporting some rad tattoos, several beanies, a traveller’s backpack and combat boots. Alternatively, Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) is a kind and nurturing character and her relationship with Hamlet is heartfelt, comforting and thankfully incest-free.
There were some performances and casting choices that did strike me as bizarre. Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) lacked a certain sinister skin-crawling disdain that one should arguably feel towards such a calculating villain. It could also be argued that the Claudius should inspire some pity in his plea for forgiveness, but he does no such thing. Another character who doesn’t inspire any real sympathy is Polonius (Jim Norton), essentially only used as a sass target for Hamlet and plot development.
Representation in this piece was also interesting to say the least. In this interpretation of Hamlet, Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is black while Ophelia (Sian Brooke) and Polonius, assumed blood relations, are white. Both Polonius and Ophelia’s actors do a decent job, but why not cast people of colour in those roles? It would have been especially meaningful in Ophelia’s case, since women of colour are rarely afforded important roles such as the advisor’s daughter or the sought-after love interest.
The story itself was captivating and hard to fall out of. Visually, it was wonderful. The setting was contemporary, a mix of old and new, reminiscent of an indie film in many ways. The broadcast’s carefully thought out cinematography made use of angles that were surprising and stunning. Lighting and shadows were used to convey meaning and add to the ambience of a shot while soliloquies took audiences away from of the bustle of the surroundings to focus on one character accompanied by the graceful slow-motion movements of the other characters.
The setting of the story was timeless and the wardrobe combined a mix of early 20th-century European styles and 1970s tees and plaid shirts. Each character’s clothing was reflective of their personality. Cumberbatch at one point sported a David Bowie crew neck T-shirt in combo with a very punk rock trench coat with the words KING plastered on his back.
The whole play is effectively clipped and compressed for a livable and enjoyable sit-through, but lacks a bit of context for Fortinbras earlier in act two. Honourable mentions go to the gravedigger, whose interactions with Hamlet were truly comical, and the ghost, who was deliciously squirm-worthy. All things said, Hamlet leaves the viewer in a state of wonder and contemplation.