I thoroughly expected to enjoy the new production of Hamlet from Barbican via the National Theatre, and as always am so very grateful for the live broadcasts because so far no one’s willing to pay to send me to London to see them all and I can’t always get there myself. There had been folderol about yet another ‘television star’ taking on a role and gibberings about reshuffling of scenes.
Can we get back to the theatre is live issue? Theatre is a living thing. Every production of a play is a new life. The magic of theatre is the simple joy of a communal experience. There’s joy in even the most scrappy am-dram production because you’re part of it. What’s truly astounding is when a production teaches you new things about a play you’ve seen and read many times.
This is one of those experiences.
The Barbican has brought me many amazing delights: a transcendent Diamanda Galás concert, Nigel Hawthorne’s Lear, the stunning Olivia Williams in Middleton’s The Changeling (just thinking of it is still…wow). This Hamlet is no exception. Lindsey Turner’s direction, Es Devlin’s production design (WOW that first image of the dining room) and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes (oh man, I’d love to have Gertrude’s first dress but in red or black for Halloween): it all provided a sumptuous feast of seamless action punctuated by rare moments of silence that echoed all the more so because of that. There was no frantic changing of scenery which seems to be a staple of big productions now, but resettings of the huge set and movement around it, echoing the idea of Hamlet’s comments about being king of infinite space while bound in a nutshell. I loved the staging so much.
Yes, of course Cumberbatch was good. Really, anyone who dismisses an actor just because they’re big overlooks all the hard work it took to get there. Hamlet can be such a drab that you want to smack him for self-pity sometimes. The reshuffling of the scenes at the start — beginning with a grief-stricken prince looking at old photo albums and playing (presumably) his father’s favourite record — put that sorrow at the center of the performance. There was so much wonderful acting between the famous lines. He smells his fathers old coat and cries, then puts it on. It’s heartbreaking.
But all the attention on the star overshadows the superb cast: Jim ‘Bishop Brennan’ Norton as Polonius! Ciarán Hinds as Claudius (a little too pompous at times), Karl Johnson with impeccable comic timing as the Gravedigger (of course doubling as the Ghost) and Anastasia Hille as a very fragile Gertrude, which made me realise of course! As Hamlet describes his father being overprotective of his mother (“…so loving to my mother / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly…”) it’s easy to imagine her as an anxious mess upon his death, looking for another protector. When Hamlet puts on an ‘antic disposition’ at first he sees everything in black and white, but as the play goes on his will falters largely because he begins to see the shades of human frailty in himself and others. It’s really about the maddening impossibility of knowing what are the right choices in the complicated web of reality.
This comes out especially with Ophelia. The real star of this production is Siân Brooke, who made me really see that role for the first time: Ophelia’s madness is a rebuke to Hamlet’s playing at it (literally in a hilarious scene where he’s playing at GIANT soldiers). Brooke is utterly heart-rending as the doomed woman. I don’t think I’ve ever thought much of the role before. They make her a photographer and it fits perfectly. She sees everything yet has no power to change it. Bullied by her father and her brother and the entire court, Ophelia struggles to survive. Hamlet and Polonius both manipulate her to achieve their ends, but don’t pay any attention to her until she is dead. The trunk she drags around with her in the mad scene is the baggage of all that; when Getrude opens it up and sees the huge cache of photos and the smashed camera, she understands at once what will happen and the horror knocks her back. Absolutely brilliant innovation.
Go to the NT Live site and find a broadcast somewhere in the world near you. I absolutely recommend it.