Friday, October 16, 2015
A Few Thoughts on Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet
After a 15 month hiatus between booking and looking my appetite was well whetted for this much heralded theatrical event. I tried to avoid reading the reviews but somehow it leaked out that what we had was a first-rate Hamlet in a second-rate production. And so alas it proved. Let me count the ways. First of all why is Laertes black? It's a distracting casting decision. Polonius his father is white, Ophelia his sister is white and there's no sign of a black mother. Nor is there any suggestion in the play that he is black. I hope it's not tokenism so that a black actor has a significant role in a major production. I'd be perfectly happy if the whole family were black. I'm just worried about the spurious inconsistency and seeming arbitrariness of it. Then there's the problem of Ophelia. I have never been so glad to see a character die off. She gave a ridiculously mannered and over to top performance that robbed her eventual death of all it's poignancy. You felt that the poor creature was so demented that we were all better off. And her rushed diction was often unintelligible. Another problem, and this was design not acting, was lumbering Horatio with a large rucksack for most of the play. I know he's a student but this was a clumsy and distracting device. The rest of the cast were fine although I would have preferred my Gertrude a bit more sensual. It was good to see Jim Norton as Polonious and the estimable Ciaran Hinds as Claudius.
There were other issues for me. The giant scale of the stage was such that I felt a lot of the action was diminished by it. And there was too much bloody running. Nobody seemed to walk off stage everyone seemed to exit frantically - running hard. You could excuse it for mad Ophelia or angry Laertes but it was a general malaise. Hamlet is always edited for length by directors but this one seemed to cut many of the really significant scenes. I didn't mind too much the cutting of the initial scene with the ghost in the battlements but much else was hewed off as well. The role of Polonious seemed to suffer particularly badly and the gravedigger's scene was also reduced.
But despite all the forgoing, Cumberbatch was magnificent - even when they dressed him in those silly costumes (an Indian head dress, a tshirt with King on the back) to convey his antic disposition. He looks the part physically and declaims the verse with panache. His presence and power ruled the stage whenever he was on it - which let's face it is most of the play. He single-handedly saved the production from tilting into mannered mediocrity.
And I hated the cover of the programme (see image). A silly conceit that undermines the whole business.