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16 October 2015 @ 01:32 am
Cumberbatch Hamlet thoughts, with surprisingly little Cumberbatch  
Hamlet, Barbican Theatre
Lyndsey Turner, director; Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet
via NT Live
15 October 2015

Okay, so Hamlet.

I don’t want to say that it went downhill for me from the beginning, but… They cut the first scene! And made it so that Horatio never saw the ghost in 1.1 – only heard about it from Marcellus and Barnardo. I think this change is emblematic of my problems with the whole production. I wouldn’t have had words for this until much later in my Hamlet career, but it’s always been important to me that Hamlet doesn’t start with Hamlet – that there’s a whole world of people who matter beyond him. Hamlet for me has always been an ensemble show; if you don’t have a good Horatio, Laertes, Ophelia, it won’t matter to me how good your Hamlet is, because Hamlet should never exist in a vacuum. But in this production, instead of beginning with that wider world and its concerns, the curtain opens on Hamlet sitting alone on the floor, listening to old records – his father’s? – and weeping. It’s Hamlet who says the play’s first line, “Who’s there?” – and then the answer is…Horatio? So Hamlet, far too early, gives part of his praise of Horatio (more on that later), and everything in me bristled against that opening.

There were a lot of little things about the production that amplified that sense that no one mattered except for Hamlet. For example, BC did “To be or not to be” but then didn’t follow it up with “Soft you now, the fair Ophelia” – which in the text forces him back into interaction with another person; instead, he just left the stage. The biggest element might have been the decision to stage the soliloquies not by having the other characters exit, but to have them freeze in place in the background while Hamlet delivered a soliloquy ringed in spotlight: it’s as if everyone gets shoved into murky insignificance, as if no one else is ever as real as Hamlet is. And I don’t think the play itself should ever seem to believe that, even if Hamlet might. There were brief moments when BC actually seemed to connect to another person on stage – the surprised warmth in his “I humbly thank you, well, well, well” to Ophelia (although he quickly starts dragging her around the stage, and the staged action does not make it at all clear why he starts behaving like this: I often thought that BC’s Hamlet was suddenly shouting at people and the like without any clear impetus), or the glimmers of humor in his first scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but those moments seemed very few and far between. Even the closet scene felt like two people acting in separate spaces – not a mother and son trying to reach each other over an impossible gulf, but just two people each in their own little bubble.

I also thought the show itself was kind of gimmicky – let’s fill the whole stage up with dirt after the interval! It’s symbolic! – and I’m really tired of that reverb “music” that every NT Live Shakespeare tragedy seems to use in between scenes to make things feel on edge, but it’s possible that I would have been less annoyed by this if the performances had grabbed me. They also had a really heavy hand with rewriting text, which in some cases just made a hash of things, and in other instances (“like acid dropping into milk” instead of “like eager droppings into milk”) just threw me out of the scene just enough – since I recognized the changes – to make me start thinking about those instead of the actual scene. (Also, I hope “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her” was just a slip on the night they recorded it – because why would you rewrite that to avoid saying “or he to Hecuba”???) (They rewrote “popped in between the election and my hopes” to be something like “stepped into my place in the succession,” which…bleh. Okay, maybe you don’t want to get into the intricacies of the electoral monarchy, but come on, “popped in” is so much better a phrase for the indignation Hamlet feels about this!) (They also rewrote Hamlet’s line at Ophelia’s grave, “What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis?” to “WOE is he,” and then gave “I will fight with him upon this theme until my eyelids will no longer wag” to Laertes instead of Hamlet, which to me seemed to smack of trying to smooth out the jerkface edges of Hamlet’s character. He’s not trying to commiserate with Laertes here; he’s making Ophelia’s funeral All About Him.)

Other random observations:

--One of the weirdest changes (because it didn’t seem to do anything but damage) was when Laertes rushes in and cries “Where is my father?” In the production, Gertrude says “Dead” and Claudius adds, shrinking, “But not by me!” In the actual text, it’s the other way around: Claudius is calm, he has that whole little speech first (“What is the cause, Laertes, that thy rebellion looks so giantlike?”), and then he’s the one to say “Dead,” and it’s Gertrude who rushes to say, “But not by him.” If they were aiming for a craven Claudius, I think they needed to be more determined about it – and anyway, I think it’s a lot more interesting to have a Claudius who possesses that kind of sangfroid, who seems in many ways to be a good – or at least effective – ruler, and is also a morally bankrupt murderer.

--(Also, Claudius didn’t say “hugger-mugger.” I realize that this is a minor thing, but it’s such a good word, and you can totally figure it out from context!)

--The Laertes cuts in his first scene with Ophelia bothered me. In part it’s that the two of them only have that one scene together before they’re reunited in her madness, so that scene has to pull all of the weight of creating a brother-sister relationship out of nothing: cutting any part of the scene gives you less time to do that. (It’s sort of like how you should never cut the twins’ reunion in Twelfth Night – why directors persist in doing this, I’ll never know – because it’s like seventeen lines and this reunion is everything the two of them have been hoping for the entire play; you need every one of those lines.) But it’s also that the lines they cut can tell you so much about Laertes if you do them right: that bit where he warns Ophelia about the danger that could befall her if she “her chaste treasure open[s]” to Hamlet’s “unmastered importunity” can go so many ways. Is Laertes such a buttoned-up martinet that he thinks nothing of directing his sister in this way? Or can you play the humor in it, as Edward Bennett did in the Doran/Tennant RSC production: realizing how awkward it was going to be to say this, wincing even to get the words out, but worried enough about his sister that he had to try to warn her anyway? (Because he played it so awkwardly, the phrase came out sounding like the most accidentally prim euphemism, which was lovely.)

--HORATIO. WHAT EVEN. First, why was Horatio a tattooed marble-mouthed hipster? What a nothing of a performance – although “Good night, sweet prince” made me want to laugh, which is I suppose an emotion. But then, the decision to bring Horatio onstage in the new first scene, alone with Hamlet, makes a mess of that entire relationship. You’d think it would make them seem closer…but everything about Horatio works by contrast. Hamlet’s warmth and ease with Horatio (“Horatio – or I do forget myself!”) only really comes into relief once you’ve seen Hamlet interact with – or be so isolated from – everyone else in the court. And moving part of Hamlet’s praise of Horatio so early (“Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice”) ruins that, firstly because we haven’t yet seen how steadfast and worried Horatio is about Hamlet (so we don’t have a sense of why Hamlet would value him so highly), but secondly because we haven’t yet seen how Hamlet interacts with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are clearly in the king’s pocket, however much they may genuinely care for Hamlet.

Then, too, I think it was a terrible mistake not to let Horatio have an existence outside of Hamlet. We learn how solid and practical he is by his skepticism about the ghost; he seems like a “scholar” not just because Marcellus and Barnardo think he can talk to ghosts but because he has the kind of presence that people appeal to for information; he can tell the two soldiers why the night has been made joint-laborer with the day. Cutting the first scene means all of that is gone – as is his courage and concern when he has to tell Hamlet that he has seen his father’s ghost. What a fraught moment for Horatio, to have to explain something like that to his dearest friend, something that could sound like terrible mockery, something that Horatio only believes because he saw it with his own eyes in the previous scene. Instead of all of that delicate, solicitous maneuvering, Horatio was just…there with nothing to do, because they’d already done the “truant disposition” bit in the weepy record-playing scene, and he hadn’t seen the ghost so he couldn’t talk about it, so the director parceled his lines out (“I knew your father. These hands are not more like”) between Marcellus and Barnardo. And then, for…reasons? they brought in some of Horatio’s discussion of the effect of the cock crowing on ghosts, but it just hung there randomly, because it only makes sense as an attempt at an explanation for why the ghost has just disappeared, but here he was saying it to Hamlet like it was supposed to convince him of…something? Bah.

--The one scene I liked was the very end of Ophelia’s second mad scene, where she looks at this trunk she’s just dragged on stage like a coffin, then stumbles offstage. Gertrude opens the trunk and finds all the photographs Ophelia has taken, as well as her camera – and Gertrude realizes that this is Ophelia’s goodbye, that she’s planning to kill herself, and runs after her. I thought it did a nice job of making sense of why it’s Gertrude who sees Ophelia’s death, and made that death a choice on Ophelia’s part – although it’s strange that they would make sure to give that moment of agency to Ophelia and then take agency away from Gertrude at her death; Horatio of all bloody people runs over from basically nowhere and says “The drink is poisoned,” so Gertrude didn’t even get the chance to warn Hamlet with her final breath; she just took a drink and keeled over dead. (I can only assume they gave Horatio that line because otherwise the audience would have been like, “wait, you’re still here?” at the end of the scene – perhaps the director could have spent more time making sure it was easy to read who was on stage in the final scene and less time on slow-mo interpretive dancing while Hamlet stabs Laertes, but hey-ho.)
La Reine Noire: Elizabethlareinenoire on October 17th, 2015 01:56 am (UTC)
I liked Ophelia in general in this production at least in part because there was nothing pretty about her madness (and they didn't make her take off her clothes, THANK GOD), and I totally agree that the end of her second mad scene was very effective. The cuts...I wasn't a fan either, for much the same reasons you weren't. They were...interesting? New? Different? But that's not the same as good. And it shortchanged so many of the other characters, especially Horatio, who was a total wash in this production. The bit at the end where he took Gertrude's line was especially aggravating--WHY would any director do that? I don't even know.
tempestsarekind: she runs lunatictempestsarekind on October 17th, 2015 02:56 pm (UTC)
Yes - Ophelia remained clothed, hurrah! I do prefer it when Ophelia isn't so obviously fragile at the beginning of the play (and there was one minor cut to her part that really frustrated me: in the production she only answers Polonius' "Mad for thy love?" with "My lord, I do not know," so they cut the part where she says "But truly I do fear it" - which is a seemingly small detail, but the original text goes a long way toward establishing that Ophelia has her own thoughts and opinions about what is going on around her and happening to her, even if she can't do anything about those thoughts). But I thought it was an interesting decision to have her repeat lines from earlier in the play, and watching her pick her way haltingly up that mountain of mud almost made the dirt everywhere worthwhile.

I think the director fell into the trap of thinking that only Hamlet matters, really - so who cares if you give Gertrude's last line to Horatio or otherwise mess with character continuity?
La Reine Noire: Elizabethlareinenoire on October 17th, 2015 03:29 pm (UTC)
There have been so many instances where I've liked interactions between Ophelia and Laertes but not the mad scenes (c.f. the Tennant production, where they were so cute and sweet early on, but the mad scenes really fell flat for me). In this production, I was disappointed that they cut so much of Ophelia's sane scenes--her interactions with Gertrude, especially--but I liked having her repeat lines from earlier in the play as part of her madness. I thought that worked really well. Also the little piano reprise bit from the mad scene really got to me for some reason.

Yeah, I definitely think this production fell into the trap of All About Hamlet, which, if you actually read the text, is not what the play is about.
tempestsarekind: hamlet--though you can fret metempestsarekind on October 17th, 2015 03:54 pm (UTC)
I feel the same way about the Tennant production! Edward Bennett and Mariah Gale are just wonderful together as Laertes and Ophelia in their first scene, but somehow that brother-sister closeness doesn't pay off in the mad scenes the way it should.

In this one, I really liked the piano reprise as well (although I think more time could have been spent on establishing the importance of that song in the first Laertes-and-Ophelia scene). There were a couple of potentially interesting gestures like that, like making Ophelia a photographer, but they needed a lot more fleshing out.

I think a lot of productions fall into the All About Hamlet trap, even if not on purpose: this is what happens if you cast a Hamlet and then don't cast others who can match that actor. I also wonder if Greg Doran's decision to have everyone read the play together in rehearsal but *not* let the actors read their own parts is why the Tennant production feels so coherent: all the actors have at least a little experience of thinking about the other characters, not just their own bits. And that's probably especially salutary for the person playing Hamlet.

Edited at 2015-10-17 03:56 pm (UTC)