REVIEW | NTL’S HAMLET
By Chaedy Ritherdon
Did high school Hamlet ruin Shakespeare for you? Do you find the Shakespearean dialogue confusing and hard to follow? Are you a Benedict Cumberbatch fanboy/fangirl and will see anything he’s in? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, than the National Theatre Live’s (NTL) recording of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch is for you!
Hamlet was first produced in 1601 and is one of his most famous, and most produced, works. Director Lyndsey Turner has an MFA in Theatre Directing and has directed plays in the West End, the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Broadway. This is a woman that really knows her Shakespeare. Purists may quip that making minor changes in the dialogue diminishes the vocabulary, but these minor changes also make the play more accessible and less alienating to people that struggle with Shakespearian dialogue. If you’re a die-hard fan of Shakespeare you will be used to directors changing scenes and dialogue, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Academy Award-nominated Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game) is Hamlet, the young and troubled anti-hero fueled with grief-stricken rage and surrounded by a society that is all too willing to tell him how he should or should not grieve. Ciarán Hinds (Rome, Game of Thrones) cuts a fine figure of a villain as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. Together, Hinds and Cumberbatch set the theme for this version of the tale: grief.
Audiences will no doubt flock to see this production because of Cumberbatch, but they will be rewarded with outstanding acting from Hinds and fellow Rome cohort Karl Johnson as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father and the Gravedigger. Jim Norton plays a bumbling Polonius, and works with Hinds in making Polonius’s hiding behind a curtain in the Queen’s chamber feel like a perfectly reasonable course of action, rather than a hammy or contrived pantomime that it so often can become.
Sadly, the female roles fail to shine for most of Act I. Anastasia Hille (Snow White and the Huntsman) plays an austere Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and this austerity prevents us from seeing any grief for all that has transpired until well into Act II. Siân Brooke presents Ophelia as a woman that is not entirely stable to begin with, which makes her descent into madness understandable, but fails to give a character arc. Any shortcomings she has in Act I are forgiven, however, during her powerful performance in Act II. Any audience that isn’t touched by her grief is a stone-hearted one.
The costuming and set designs are exquisite, with very clever uses of lighting to change scenes from within the palace to a bleak, war-torn landscape. However, the NTL recording team really drops the ball in Act II: after the intermission was over, Laertes’ microphone crackled whenever he spoke, some of the shots were out of focus, and there was a very poorly executed zoom that detracted from what should have been a poignant scene. This is the only NTL production I’ve seen where the lighting technicians failed to obtain the balance between the dramatic, bleak lighting of the play and having the actors well lit enough to be filmed.
As good as Hinds looks in his grey suit, I do wish that the costume designer changed his costume in Act II for something that wasn’t going to strobe when filmed – how did the recording team fail to pick up that a plaid suit with a hound’s-tooth waistcoat would be an issue? It’s heartbreaking that they didn’t do pick-up shots for the few scenes that sorely needed it, but despite all this it is still worth seeing.
Seeing Hamlet is a 3 ½ hour commitment. Like all NTL productions, there is an intermission at the end of Act I. This is the only NTL production I’ve seen that didn’t include a documentary about the show after the intermission – I can only assume that the NTL director thought that the show was long enough as it was and decided that the audience would suffer from deep-vein thrombosis if they made it any longer. This is a long slog, but the truly dedicated (and caffeinated) viewers will be rewarded with a show that will be remembered as one of the greatest things they have seen on a cinema screen.
This production of Hamlet at the Barbican was the fastest-selling theatrical production in recorded history. Tickets are $25 rather than the usual cinema ticket price, but given that tickets to the stage production ranged from 30-60£ ($63 – $128 AUD), paying $25 is actually a bargain. Like all NTL productions, this show will not be printed to DVD by the request of the director and the actors, so this next week is your only chance to see this amazing production.
Screenings of NTL: Frankenstein starring Cumberbatch (which I’ve also reviewed) sold out, so I strongly advise you to book your tickets well in advance online. You can also access a digital copy of the program, which includes exclusive content such as interviews with the cast and crew for $12.99 via the National Theatre Backstage app in the iOS App Store.
National Theatre Live: Hamlet will be showing until November 18 at Cinema Nova, the Palace Cinemas, and the Sun Theatre.
Directed by: Lyndsey Turner
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Jim Norton, Anastasia Hille, Siân Brooke, Karl Johnson