After three hours and twenty minutes (not counting the intermission), it’s official, y’all. Benedict Cumberbatch is my favorite Hamlet. My review is focusing on my own opinions—not the slightly mixed reviews I read of his stage performance. Take it for what it’s worth! I’m no theatre critic, but I do love me some Shakespeare.
1. Benedict Cumberbatch
Move over, David Tennant, there’s a new Dane in town. Somehow Benedict Cumberbatch manages to take a 400 year-old part and create a very modern, 21st century figure. The most interesting aspect of any performance of Hamlet is how the title character handles the endless soliloquies. Cumberbatch is amazing. He pulls the audience into his brain and shows the thoughts unravelling behind “to be or not to be,” and “what a piece of work is man.” Some of the other, less famous lines were a little quick and hard to hear, but he nails the speeches. Plus, he’s funny. We were all laughing along as he pretended to be mad and holed himself up in a toy soldier’s castle.
2. A Menacing Villain
Ciarán Hinds (Frozen, The Phantom of the Opera, Harry Potter, Persuasion) brings Claudius to life in a very unique way. For some reason, Claudius has never seemed villainous to me—no matter how many times Hamlet cries out “bloody, bawdy villain!/Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” I think it’s because every time I’ve read the play or seen it performed the focus is so much on Hamlet the Dane. Hinds’ Claudius is a believable villain. He shows how Claudius is truly a schemer—he plots with everyone, with Gertrude, with Polonius, with Laertes. One of the most powerful moments of the play is when he stands in a hurricane of leaves and dirt at the end of Act I—he has just sent Hamlet to England. It’s as if Claudius is accepting, as Macbeth does, that there can be no prayer or remorse or mercy.
3. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”
I have always loved the close friendship between Hamlet and Horatio, and I found that element to be slightly lacking in this production. Horatio is a flannel-wearing—hipster? homeless college student? We don’t know. When Horatio greets Hamlet at the beginning of the play (a variation from the text), they are close—you can tell they love each other. Once the action picks up, though, their camaraderie is slightly lacking. Whatever my problems with the middle of the play, the final moments were spot on—the “we defy augury” scene and Hamlet’s death showed Hamlet and Horatio’s closeness in a way that the previous scenes hadn’t.
4. Gertrude and Ophelia
Loved them both. Don’t believe the critics. Gertrude is a trembling mess by the end—as well she should be. The only complaint I had was that the fight scene at the end is a little jumbled. It’s hard to see why she picks up the poisoned glass—she just does and dies.
Ophelia is believable in her madness. What I loved is that you can see her insecurities growing from her very first appearance on stage. There were some odd moments between Hamlet and Ophelia that didn’t quite fit the story line, but other than that the two had great chemistry. Ophelia’s final scene where she distributes flowers to everyone actually made me cry.
While I could go on for quite some time, I think this is enough to give you a taste of this excellent performance. I’m looking forward to attending more NT Live productions in the future! National Theatre Live is an organization that broadcasts shows from the London Stage directly to theaters around the world. In the UK, those broadcasts are shown live, but because of time delays, they are shown later in other parts of the world. While the show I saw wasn’t truly live, it was filmed on the same day, which is pretty cool!