October 30, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (Sonia Friedman Productions/NT Live) @ The Light, Leeds

Fortunately, given that I was extremely poorly during last night’s screening, everyone and their doctorate seems to have written about Hamlet already. There are really great pieces out there by Tom Cornford, Holger Schott Syme, Eoin Price, not to mention most of the newspapers at least twice, after the ‘controversy’ (read: storm in a teacup) over the show being reviewed in preview. In fact, I can’t think of a Shakespeare production that has received such extensive coverage since Gregory Doran’s production of the same play starring David Tennant some years ago, and this production has similarly produced a drip-feed of banal news headlines designed to keep up the show’s public profile throughout its run (today – Benedict Cumberbatch said ‘Fuck the Politicians’ in a speech after last night’s performance, and my apologies for the typically reactionary Telegraph link).

Given that, I’m taking a break from constructing a proper review. I’ve been deaf in one ear for a full week now and I struggled immensely to stay tuned in to the production, which isn’t (entirely) its fault. What follows is a rather less edited than usual series of thoughts and observations, as much for my own memory as anything else, but I hope they might still be of some use to others.

I had no problems at all with most of the textual rearranging, which seemed almost entirely designed to clarify the action for an audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare. Some great effects of this included the poignant opening that foregrounded Hamlet’s loss of his father as the production’s framing device (the image of him rooting through old suitcases in an attic room, sobbing over the memories unearthed, felt authentic). Similarly, having Horatio come in and pay his respects to Hamlet before heading out on the battlements, giving the Player a designated speech for the ’12-16 lines’ (‘Oh damned villain’), shifting ‘To be’ so that it came as a continuous train of thought from his ‘Except my life’ to Polonius, all seemed designed to create clear lines of continuity, resolution and clarity throughout the play. They aren’t necessarily decisions I’d make myself, but I could see the rationale for all of them, and I suspect they were immensely helpful to the new audiences who the production seemed to be aiming at.

Apart from the final deaths, of course. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude was completely shoved out of focus by the idiotic reshuffling of the final lines. Instead of Gertrude drinking after the second bout between Laertes and Hamlet, Ciarán Hinds’s Claudius offered Hamlet the cup a second time, and Hamlet refused it a second time. Then, Hamlet and Laertes began a ridiculously violent brawl that echoed the excessive fencing school match in Die Another Day, during which at some point Gertrude decided to take the cup and drink. She seemed by this point to have worked out what it would do to her, but both the production and the filming of it completely ignored whatever process led up to this decision. Instead, what we got in the cinema was the suggestion that Gertrude was ignoring the enormous life-or-death struggle occupying everyone else and getting on with clearing up. Quite why director Lyndsey Turner decided to sell Gertrude down the river at this point I don’t know, but the production had very little interest in Gertrude throughout, often trapping her behind enormous tables or simply sidelining her, and this was a waste of the excellent Hille.

I saw this screening as one of the exclusive Sony 4k events hosted at Vue cinemas. The prefatory materials, featuring a banal interview with Melyvn Bragg and a theoretically sweet but tiresomely long visit to a secondary school by Cumberbatch to see a devised piece by pupils based on Hamlet, dragged the event up to nearly four hours long. The main problem though, regardless of the wonders of hi-hi-hi-def, was that the production was so relentlessly dark, and the cameras captured black as a grainy colour. The effect was to feel like I was watching most of the production while wearing sunglasses, with the colours as muted as my own hearing. I believe that this is the first time NT Live has broadcast from the Barbican, which may have something to do with it, but the actors seemed lost to me in a sea of grainy black.

The enormous, busy and vastly populated set seemed designed primarily to demonstrate how much money had been spent on the production, and the large empty spaces were what resulted in the relentless blackness of the screen. When the camera was able to focus on the fine detail of sections of the stage, the production seemed designed for film; when it needed to cover larger reaches of the stage, it failed. Far too much time was spent spiriting furniture on and offstage, and the busy-ness led to static-ness. The weakest moment came as Jim Norton’s Polonius entered to tell Gertrude and Claudius of Hamlet’s madness. Not only was the scene cut to ribbons and thus played at a bizarrely fast pace, but Gertrude was sequestered far away behind a huge campaign table and seemed to be distracted throughout by attendants helping plot European war movements. The production throughout seemed to be far more interested in its larger world creations than in what was going on in the given scene.

The production was also interestingly disinterested in comedy, at least when comedy would disrupt a clean telling of the story. Polonius’s ramblings were heavily cut, turning him into a thoroughly efficient and entirely uninteresting character. Osric was cut, with the challenge being delivered instead by the formal and formidable Voltemand (Morag Stiller) in an entirely serious vein. Hamlet’s interruptions during the Mousetrap and Polonius’s interruptions during the Player’s speech were also cut down. The humour that was retained operated at a very different level – the showy faux-militarism of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet dressed up as a life-size toy soldier, playing in an enormous fort, emphasising the element of arrested development in his privileged upbringing and his return to childish things in the wake of his father’s loss.

I enjoyed Cumberbatch’s performance, however. His controlling, impassioned Hamlet offered plenty of emphases that I haven’t particularly seen before. Having him perform the role of Lucianus, slowly pouring poison into the Player King’s ear while staring down Claudius, allowed for a moment of unusually aggressive confrontation. His set-piece with Guildenstern and the pipe was played for full emotion, his lonely distress emerging as sobs. I wish Turner hadn’t felt the need to use horrible slow motion and spotlight for every soliloquy, but Cumberbatch sold the speeches as a progression of what was happening in the scenes around them (incidentally, the slow-mo reached a nadir when used for the stabbing of Laertes, with the rest of the cast dancing bizarrely around the edges). Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was suffering from the start, and his open display of his emotions, tied to his childishness, made him a compelling figure to watch.

Most of the cast were fine. Hinds’s Claudius alternated (as others have noted) between underplayed and chewing the scenery, though in his defence he was often forced to play against the intrusive underscore, including in his final roar that closed the first half as mud and wood chippings were blown in from the wings following Hamlet’s departure. I also liked Siân Brooke’s Ophelia. Fragile from the start, hunched and insecure, Ophelia took photographs and lost herself in a world of close-up. While quite a simple reading, Turner had her cast bully the nervous woman until she was mumbling and trembling during the mad scenes, imploring Laertes to play piano melodies that they had previously enjoyed together, and stumbling about the stage. Her final progress to her death, underscored by gentle piano and seeing her walk upstage into a bright light, was one of the production’s best blocked visual moments. I also thought there was great work in smaller roles by Matthew Steer’s awkward, laughing Rosencrantz; the eloquent Player King of Ruairi Conaghan, and the genuinely amusing, gruff Gravedigger of Karl Johnson.

The theatrical coup of the major set change between the first and second halves, which turned Elsinore into a ruin and filled the stage with piles of mud and chippings, seemed to me to be a direct steal (on a much bigger scale) from Michael Boyd’s RSC production of a few years ago. Nonetheless, the overall effect of Elsinore falling into ruin following Hamlet’s departure worked nicely. I was also fascinated by the use of a movable backdrop of mud and twisted skulls against which Johnson’s Ghost (with horrible lacerations in his chest) was constantly framed in his appearances, including on the little stage brought in by the Players.

Other random points. Horatio (Leo Bill) seemed to have had very little thought put into his role beyond ‘be a student’, appearing with perennial backpack, tattoos and scraggy beard. However, his cry of ‘Why, what a king is this’ following the revelation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths came out as a direct and angry criticism of Hamlet, in a lovely moment of tension between the two characters. The scenes of political preparations, Fortinbras’s camp and Fortinbras’s arrival were played in quite some detail, and the production clearly wanted to make some kind of point out of the centrality of politics to this enormous palace (though quite what, I wasn’t sure). The use of balconies gave an interesting sense of overhearing and watchfulness throughout, but at the cost of any kind of intimacy (and the aforementioned problems for the cameras). Laertes’s army felt like a genuine threat to Claudius, emerging at the top of a heap of rubble and holding Claudius at gunpoint. And the odd moment of physical theatre during the chasing down of Hamlet where half the cast suddenly started acting like dogs felt like it had been imported from an entirely different production.

Ultimately, though, the production felt torn (and no-one put it as well as Holger, whose review I recommend again). This seemed to me to be a production that wanted to do a great deal but was overwhelmed by the weight of celebrity, the financial investment, the sheer possibilities of scale on the Barbican stage, and the desire to be ‘accessible’. What actually emerged was a solid, if messy, and entirely conventional, if reasonably well-performed, Hamlet. I have no great antipathy to it, and I think it’s a great ‘first-time’ Hamlet for the many, many people who will doubtless have seen it for the first time on the strength of Cumberbatch. But whether or not this was because of my own difficulties in watching, I was unconvinced that there was any underpinning rationale for the decisions, the pace was simultaneously rushed and ponderous, and my overall impression was one of something with a huge amount of potential, but lacking the insight and coherence of vision to realise it.

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