The Sonia Friedman production of Hamlet, telecast by National Theatre Live (October 15th, 7 pm, at SilverCity), had the potential to be one of the best renditions of William Shakespeare’s iconic story to date. There were moments of brilliance in director Lyndsey Turner’s eccentric interpretation of the play. However, there were also numerous flaws, leaving the play shy of what could have been a stellar production.
In Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Hamlet descends into madness with the death of his father at the hand of Claudius. The plot follows the major ideas of betrayal, revenge and love. In his quest to avenge the murder of his father, Hamlet’s indecision takes its toll and leads to a path of death and destruction.
Lyndsey Turner had an interesting approach to Hamlet. She chose to cut scenes and rearrange the beginning of the play. In my opinion this was not a wise move, since the opening scene of the original script is important to our understanding of the story. She introduced elements such as dance, slow motion, toy soldiers, and a miniature castle to bring home the point that Hamlet’s childhood ended with the death of his father. She also made use of a trap door on stage. I thought the slow motion during Hamlet’s soliloquies and the use of the trap door were inspired choices. Others elements, however, were not as effective. The toy soldiers and castle, for example, just seemed silly. Theatricality clearly played a part in this Hamlet, and not only with the elements used. It was also evident in the costumes, set, lighting and scene changes.
Benedict Cumberbatch was outstanding in the lead role of Hamlet – arguably the best I have seen. I definitely got a sense of his inner turmoil. Siân Brooke played a wonderfully suppressed and childlike Ophelia. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude gained in strength as the play progressed, although she had some unfortunate microphone issues caused by the aggressive hand gestures she used to emphasize her distress. Jim Norton’s Polonius was a silly, but likeable friend to the King and Queen of Denmark. However, the other major characters fell short of expectations. Leo Bill’s portrayal of Horatio as a Hipster looked completely out of context, not to mention his speech was mostly slurred. As well Kobna Holdbrook-Smith gave a weak performance as Laertes. Ciarân Hinds had a few respectable moments as Claudius, but seemed to have no real motivation.
Adding to the unevenness of the production was the failing of the costumes and makeup, designed by Katrina Lindsay. The costumes were very detailed to be sure, but each character was dressed in clothes of a different time period. This may have been intentional but it threw me off nonetheless. The Ghost looked almost Halloweenish. And I really question the choice of a David Bowie T-shirt and red Converse chucks for Hamlet. On a positive note, I liked that Horatio was the only character that never went through a costume change. I saw this as a symbol of his steadiness and enduring friendship with Hamlet.
Hamlet’s exquisite set, designed by Es Devlin, slowly deteriorated as Hamlet’s state of mind worsened. This was interesting and seemed to work very nicely. The lighting by Jane Cox added to the theatricality of the play, although the flashing strobes indicative of growing madness were distracting. On the other hand, the use of spotlights proved very effective during the soliloquies, as were the blackouts for the scene changes. Christopher Shutt’s sound design played a role in the movement of the play. It began with 40’s music to establish the time period. Then it became darker and louder to emphasize the emotional build up.
All in all I would have to say if you’re looking for an exciting take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and willing to sit for a good three and a half hours, the National Theatre Live broadcast of Hamlet is definitely worth seeing. Be prepared for the unconventional and make sure that you have some popcorn on hand to keep you going through the very long first half.
Annie Martin is a third year Theatre student at the University of Ottawa and part of THE 4333 (Theatre Criticism) as taught by Dr. Yana Meerzon. She has always had a passion for theatre and acting and is a very avid theatre goer. She works as a lifeguard and swimming instructor for the city of Ottawa.