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Hamlet, Prince of Cumberbatch

Last night Catherine and I got to see the Lyndsey Turner Hamlet that's currently at the Barbican, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Maybe this will come across as a negative review, but I actually really liked it. I had problems with the line delivery, the acting, and the direction, but these are all minor things compared to the technical design, right?

Overall, Jane Cox's lighting rocked, and Es Devlin's scenic deisgn was also great. Christopher Shutt's sound design was the star of the show, though. Loud, ominous, menacing, drums for the win! I realize that I'm not going into as much detail here as I do about scenic and lighting, but I really think this was the most successful part of the production. I'm just not a sound guy, so I don't have a lot of nuance in my appreciation. Suffice to say, the sound was always present and always disquieting. Shutt knew when to be sublte and creepy, and he knew when to blow the roof off (almost literally at the end of act three!).

The set was a huge interior room in a Victorian (?) mansion, and various tables and desks were wheeled in an out to create different spaces. The walls were covered in weapons which, as someone who spent quite a lot of our Macbeth budget just to get three swords, seemed more than a little unfair. But it did give Hamlet easy access to Polonius-dispatching tools on a whim. There were also a great many giant doors, and scrims with bookshelves and whatnots painted on them, as well as a large banistered staircase.

(Speaking of--for the play, they wheeled out a small curtained play house, which was also left in place to act as Polonius' closet arras. Finally, the curtains were drawn back again to reveal the ghost of Hamlet Sr.--all in all it was a very effective use of the piece, and it reminded me of Taymor's "penny arcades" from Titus.)

But yes, simple set with lots of details around the edges. Act three ends with a huge explosion noise, and giant gusts of black confetti blow in through every offstage exit. After the intermission, the house has been flooded with mountains of small black bits, like pieces of volcanic rock, piling up all over the stage. The back wall was removed, revealing an interior hall that vanished off into the distance, and which was also choked with rock. The whole thing had a wonderful abandoned building feel, and this was the choice that took the scenic design to the next level. For the first three acts the set was evocative and serviceable, but for the last two it became much more than that.

The other thing that I loved about the set was that even though it was so detailed around the edges, it was really able to get out of the lighting designer's way. To put it another way, although the set was very specific about the location it represented, Cox was still able to create new locations at will with her lighting. Some of this was aided by the camera, I don't doubt--with less sophisticated contrast than the human eye, the walls were able to be blacked out entirely, leaving only the expanse of rock for the Norwegian encampment, for example, but the end result was a lovingly detailed set that still allowed a huge amount of flexibility in terms of place.

And Cox did a great job of conveying place not merely in terms of physical, but also emotional location. The melancholy dining room at midnight, Claudius' busy office, and the cold night on the battlements were my especial favorites. The last involved a train of soldiers preparing for war, as they pulled an endless series of carts along the field. Strongly lit from the stage right entrance in a harsh white light, tons of haze in the air--I swear it looked so cold I could see the guards' breath! And like I say, the Norwegian encampment or the rocky shore where Horatio meets the sailors, these honestly seems miles away from Elsinore, even though the walls and stairs and bookcases were all still there, just out of the light.

In addition, there were a number of special effects scenes which I came to reluctantly love. I say reluctantly because I think that it's far more praiseworthy to make me feel the chill in the air through subtle cues than it is to blow me away with fancy set pieces... but Cox did both, and that's even better!

Mostly these set pieces were what I call "bullet-time soliloquies". For example, in the middle of the party Hamlet looks away from the other guests and wishes that his too, too solid flesh would melt. The lighting shifts to a cold spot on him, and a murky underwater blue on everyone else. They are still continuing the scene, but in super-slow motion as Hamlet talks. They did this for all of the sololiquies, and on the one hand, it was a little distracting to have the Player King silently acting out Priam's death at 1/8th speed while Hamlet poured out his soul. But on the other hand it was frickin' awesome! And, practically speaking, it was very efficient--after the soliloquy ended, the lights snapped back and everyone resumed their scene.

They used the same effect at the end, but the director (Lindsey Turner) got confused and had them do it on Laertes death instead of Claudius's. So Hamlet gets stabbed with the poison point (although as Catherine pointed out, if the hero is wearing what and is supposed to be stabbed, why wouldn't you indulge in a little stage blood to show it? Seriously, his jacket was spotless!). They scuffle, Hamlet grabs the deadly weapon, and BOOM, suddenly everything is in bullet-time again and he slowly brings it down and impales Laertes. Then the lights snap back to normal and Gertrude says she's thirsty. Claudius gets stabbed and forced to drink his wine, of course, but it all happens in real time. It was super weird.

There were also a couple of projection effects (designed by Luke Halls). One was like the walls were covered in glowing spider webs, or possibly cracks like in a mirror? And the other one involved a kaleidoscope of shapes, or maybe shards of broken glass? But of them were actually way more subtly done than my description makes them sound, and they were pretty hard to describe. I certainly liked them, but they didn't seem to be doing a lot more than adding texture. So, basically they were like texture gobos, except that they cost more than the entire season budget for my company.

I had a really hard time determining the period for the whole show. It all felt like the late 1800s, but the costumes were clearly modern. Hamlet spent most of the first two acts in a Redcoat / drummer boy costume, and then changed into a David Bowie t-shirt, over which he wore a frock coat. The trim of the coat was covered in white paint, and someone had hand painted "KING" on the back in white as well. I wanted to love this costume so much, but I'm afraid that it was ultimately meaningless and distracting. I also thought that is was weird to have Hamlet in a white fencing costume and Laertes in a black one. Even though Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is black, and Benedict Cumberbatch is white. Even though the director apparently thought that Laertes was the real villain of the play. I didn't get it.

(All photographs Johan Persson via Reuters)

The rest of the costumes reminded me of the set walls--they had a lot of great grounding detail, but they somehow still managed to stay out of the way. Which, well, I'd rather see a big statement that really works. But if the alternatives are either bland, boring garments or big statements that don't work (like the "KING" jacket) then I think it's much preferable to do something interesting that isn't distracting. I guess the two exceptions were Ophelia's act II dress and its ridiculous shoulders, and the fact that Horatio was a hipster's hipster, with the dark-rimmed glasses, the spider web elbow tattoo, and everything. There's no particular reason that this couldn't have been brilliant (is detached irony the modern version of stoicism?) but I really didn't like the portrayal, the acting choices, the line delivery, or the direction for Horatio so who can say whether the concept or costume could have worked?

The chopped up the play a lot, and made some surprising cuts. For example, the whole creepy introduction with Marcellus and Barnardo seeing the ghost? All gone. The announcement that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead? Also cut. Hamlet's key understanding that "... the devil hath power t' assume a pleasing shape..." was missing as well. And they reassigned various minor speeches all over the place. None of it really affected the structure of the play, mind you, although it did make certain interpretations more difficult. However, these cuts and restructurings also did nothing to further any particular interpretation either--I assume they were most cut for time. It was a brute part to kill so capital a calf, as Hamlet refrained from saying last night for some reason.

As to the acting, I can say that with the exception of Horatio and Guildenstern I think every actor did at least one thing that I really liked. Matthew Steer (and not Tom Baker, as I originally assumed) played a lovely Stoppardian Rosencrantz and was pretty much always delightful. Sometimes Jim Norton successfully played Polonius and wise and kind, and sometimes successfully as a fool, and I'm willing to bet that if he had chosen one or the other it could have gone well for him. I certainly loved his "brevity" speech!

My biggest complaint was that I personally prefer a naturalistic line delivery. I know it's a matter of taster, and I understand that Elizabethan (and, I think, Victorian?) audiences preferred to hear Lofty Oration, but the fact is that iambic pentameter can work extremely well in English speech. And yet in the first two acts, everyone was pompously intoning like caricatures of Shakespearean thespians. Catherine suggested that they were going for the stuffy formality of a state dinner (they were all wearing formal military uniforms, as well) and that might be the case, but I disliked it just the same. Cumberbatch got much better over the course of the play, and Anastasia Hille (as Gertrude) managed to sound like a real person about half the time. Ciarán Hinds *as Claudius) never did. He ultimately seemed to be going for Al Pacino doing Laurence Olivier, which was an extremely odd choice.

Now that I think of it, Hamlet Sr. had a pretty good delivery, but he also had a really strong Irish accent. I thought that was an odd choice as well. And Horatio's accent was too thick for me to tell if his delivery was off--frankly, I thought he was a bit of a mess all around, although Cat saw his performance as one of "growing horror" as things went more and more off the rails, so it seems to have worked better for her than for me.

Ophelia had nervous tics and body movements from the very beginning, and I'm really not sure how I felt about that. However, it was a strong choice, and I do know how I feel about making strong choices about Ophelia--absolutely a good thing to do. A choice I liked even more was to give her a camera and have her photographing little still lifes throughout. This allowed her to be seen as an interesting person with a hobby that was both artistic and also technical (it was an older camera, clearly film, so she probably did her own darkroom work). So although they didn't add any lines (and I'm pretty sure that cut her lines a bunch) this one detail still gave her more agency than most Ophelias ever get.

Then in the mad scene, instead of having her sing bawdy songs and nursery rhymes, they mostly had her quoting Hamlet. Both his letters to her "... most fair and beautified Ophelia..." but also the directions to her father's corpse ("... you shall nose him as you go up the stairs..."). Just reading that again, it sounds way too on the nose, but Sian Brooke totally pulled it off. So bear in mind that in a few paragraphs when I start to complain about the boring lack of acting and directing choices, Ophelia is the exception. Like I say, it didn't necessarily work for me--it made me uncomfortable, but I don't know if it was in a good way or a bad way. But it was new and different and effective.

Anyway, while she's quoting Hamlet and breaking her brother's heart, she's carting around a giant steamer trunk. Thumping it down the stairs, pulling it around, &c. It remained on stage after she left, and was even more payoff for the camera prop. After Ophelia's death, Gertrude opens the trunk and pulls out heaps of black and white photographs. For me, this was the most affecting scene in the play: Gertrude quietly crying as she looks as Ophelia's art, which had been shut up in a box until her death. A character moment for her as well as for Opheila, as well as being a metaphor for Ophelia's character.

But yes, Horatio was muddy and unclear, Ophelia was bold and interesting, and everyone else was just sort of... good. Possibly I'd even say they were "real good", aside from their line delivery. They all seemed believable, and when the text revealed their character it felt appropriate. People were funny when called for, angry and shouty when needed. To no one's surprise, Benedict Cumberbatch was at his very best when Hamlet was being angry, snarky, and very very smart. But he was perfectly fine at the introspective parts as well.

If this all sounds like I'm damning the production with faint praise it's because I totally am. It wasn't a waste of time, and I really enjoyed it, and for the most part nobody messed up or dropped the ball or did a bad job. But these days I have my own theatre company, and so I know that you don't need Benedict Cumberbatch in order to do things well. Our actors do things well, too, but that's the minimum we expect from them. After they learn their lines and meet with our text coaches and study the dialect, they go on to make breathtaking discoveries about who these people are. Discoveries that are never stated outright in the text, but that fit perfectly with the characters as written. Watching the big-budget show last night I didn't see the actors bring anything new or exciting or different or amazing, for the most part. No economically brilliant little character moments, no casting or acting or directing choices that made me reevaluate my understanding of the text.

But I was mostly there for the lighting, anyway, and that was top notch!

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