Whilst I appreciated this was a well-executed, grand spectacle, responsible for reinvigorating the masses to watch Shakespeare, I can’t help but disagree with just about every directorial decision presented.
Let’s start at the beginning, or the latter half of act 1, scene 2, as this rewrite had it. By all means, update Shakespeare; I’ve seen it done in 80s dress, with unwelcome pop ballads between scenes and even whilst ‘Shit-Faced’. Every director brings their own slant to the Bard. But don’t rewrite it. Don’t mess with the script.
If Cumberbatch’s record-breaking sell out show is anything to go by, the script worked fine before, and not so much when it’s all out of order. It’s sad that half the world are now going to assume this newfangled version is gospel.
This notable lack of the classic opening scene, for me, diminished the initial shock factor of the Ghost’s appearance. The show tried to compensate by making his eventual arrival doubly shocking, to the point of melodramatic ridiculousness. Old Hamlet’s body was chewed up and ‘zombie-fied’ and his language lost impetus due to the bumbling-old-man voice with which it was spoken. This (unfit) characterisation of the Ghost was only further mocked when the actor doubled as the comedic Gravedigger later; other than the alliteration of their names, I don’t see why these two characters needed to be paralleled.
In opposition to the Zombie of Old Hamlet, much of the performance took a relatively naturalistic tact. The stage was overtly grand, totally befitting of the Court of Elsinore, but seemed comfortably like home for the characters and actors alike. Aligning with this set, Cumberbatch played an honest, sincere Hamlet. His emotions were wonderfully heartfelt, if not a little too melancholy for my liking. For me, Hamlet ought to be driven by bitterness, his wit manifested in sarcasm, demeaning those around him and controlling any situation he inhabits. Yet the premature placement of ‘to be or not to be’ rendered Hamlet suicidal from very early on. Whilst Cumberbatch mastered the role he was given, I personally found his scenes were a little too formulaic: spot-lit soliloquies caused him to break down into teary-eyed paralysis, somewhat slowing the pace of each scene to that of the background actors, who adopted super-slow motion whilst he spoke.
This repeated use of slow-motion, ‘don’t look at us, we’re not here’ acting, wasn’t the only innovative physicality in the piece. As Shakespeare’s lengthiest play, Hamlet can get bogged down in wordiness, so Lyndsey Turner direction utilised the physicality of both actors and props, in order to convey the message to the masses. The slow-motion, whilst Hamlet disappeared into his own thoughts, was well-executed and added a new dimension to the classic ‘single man on stage, pouring his heart out’ formula. However, most of the other physical decisions left me either scratching or shaking my head. It seemed that too much comedy was being found in prop-use, bordering on slapstick silliness when Hamlet’s ‘madness’ reduced him to a childlike state, popping his head out from an under-sized fort. His ‘antic disposition’ ought to be calculated, intelligent, and yes, whilst he should have fun with it, I don’t believe that total regression to match the giant mindless soldier toys was necessarily the way to go.
Beyond this, the closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude is described in the script itself as being reliant on ‘words’ as weapons; thus the comparison between her two husbands, between a glamorous hanging portrait and a tacky merchandise plate with Claudius’ face stamped in the centre, seemed to undermine the quality of their conversation, for the sake of a cheap laugh.
A less intentional laugh came at the climactic end of the first half, when everyone is in pursuit of the mad, and now murderous, Hamlet. The combination of thumping bass music, strobe lighting and a flurry of ashes and hectic was awe-inspiring; but the courtiers, in full suits, running on all fours, was just a little much. I get the whole ‘pursued by hounds’ factor, but the lack of commitment to their canine roles saw the men gallop across half the stage, before resuming full biped status for the other half.
The second act was suitably dark and ominous, with the once grand stage bestrewn with filth and ash. However, the very final scene was ruined by the over-done death of Laertes. Everything stopped, Hamlet himself this time adopted super-slow motion, to plunge the rapier into the spot-lit Laertes; meanwhile the company did some strange, floaty movements akin to any GCSE drama class. This could have been a fantastic climax, but WHY was it given to Laertes? I would have loved a moment like this (admittedly minus the floaty arm movements) to mark Claudius’ murder, the culmination of all of Hamlet’s strife. Instead, ‘poison to thy work’ was over in a matter of seconds, far upstage and somewhat masked by the balustrade of the grand staircase.
I don’t feel it necessary to prate on about Cumberbatch’s impressive acting (after all, let’s face it, his participation was the only reason the theatre was so beyond ‘Sold Out’ that I had been demoted to a cinema screening.) But it is worth noting the other impeccable acting performances. Claudius was every bit the perfect villain, from the sinister twist to undermine his prayer/confession, to the unloving way he manhandled the increasingly frail Gertrude. Rozencrantz and Guildernstern were the perfect dweebs, underplaying their parts masterfully to become nothing more than pawns in Claudius’ cruel game.
Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, seemed a little too pathetic from the off, causing me to wonder where her performance had left to go when it came to her breakdown. But this performance truly surprised me, as the second act saw Ophelia ditch her oversized, frumpy jumper, for a Victoriana lace dress, making her Miss Haversham-esque in her madness. Her twitching was enough to make the audience flinch with discomfort; a spectacular use of physicality, amongst all the other silliness. Finally, having expressed herself musically from her very first appearance, Ophelia was granted a dramatic and worthy end, as she shut the piano lid and stumbled offstage, up a dark path, towards the light. If her total physical and mental demise wasn’t enough to suggest her impending death, this dramatic exit certainly did; the always overlooked Ophelia was finally given her last hurrah.
As a whole, I totally respected the performance, particularly from an acting point of view. But, unfortunately, I see it as the very height of hubris to think that one can acceptably re-write Shakespeare. Thus, for someone who has read and reread Hamlet incalculable times, this version undermined its own potential greatness in trying to be just that bit too innovative.