Film & TV

Film Review – National Theatre Live: Hamlet

“Alas, poor Yorick”.  “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  “To be or not to be”.

Some of the most well known lines in English and theatrical history and all from the same play.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be over 400 years old, but it certainly has not lost it’s spark or emotive heart, and many hold it dear as their favourite work from the Bard. 

No pressure then. 

Lyndsey Turner’s adaptation of the play is stunning, capturing the full drama and sorrow that is at the core of the show.  The updated clothing (Cumberbatch’s young Hamlet sports a t-shirt emblazoned with Bowie for a while) and technology, such as the camera and record player, give the play a new, if retro, life.  The set itself, as with all National Theatre sets, was almost a character in itself, the staircase and multiple doors being a gateway connecting the multiple narrative strands, and modifying itself to the play’s action.  At first, what is an opulent, impressive staircase which carries the newlyweds down to their waiting guests, is marred by the explosive end to Act I, and turned to grime as muddy wood chips are blasted through every entrance way in a thrilling end to the scene.

“Benedict Cumberbatch was powerful throughout the entirety of the play, inspiring visceral emotion, mainly of sympathy and pity for the tortured, captured young prince”

Another creative decision was to have the background actors move in slow motion when a soliloquy was performed, rather than pausing them completely.  Visually, this represented the idea of being locked in the character’s head while everyday life goes on, drawing the audience in as a confidant.  The choreography must have been difficult but the actors played it very well, showing their talent and control.

The actors, after all, are what drove the play.  All were amazing, although some lines did seem to be shouted when it wasn’t necessary, although this could just be a sound problem.  Special mentions go to Leo Bill’s loyal-to-a-fault Horatio, who develops from a simple friend into the messenger of the great tragedy at the end of the play, and you can see the pain and defeat in his eyes as he delivers his last lines.  Both Siân Brooke’s Ophelia and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes are symbols of the play’s overreaching arc, starting in blissful, unaware happiness, only to spiral in grief and a madness of their own.  This is especially poignant in the case of Ophelia, and Brooke manages to capture her unhinged nature, but also the innocence and confusion underneath which causes the audience to mourn her all the more.  Of course the titular character, played by the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch was powerful throughout the entirety of the play, inspiring visceral emotion, mainly of sympathy and pity for the tortured, captured young prince.  The whole cast had an energy that really propelled and buoyed the action, and the size of the stage left plenty of room for dynamism in their performances which they used to their advantage.

“The performance lives up to its hype”

What is surprising for such a tragic tale was the levity the actors and director managed to imbue into the text.  Jim Norton’s Polonius both frustrated and amused as the audience begged for him to just get to the point already, although ironically some of the lines did feel a bit rushed.  There was also a few scenes in which Hamlet’s ‘madness’ was not harrowing but humorous, particularly the scenes were Cumberbatch is dressed as a toy soldier, complete with drum, headpiece, and castle to defend.  To strike a balance, and move very quickly between, high and low emotions without it seeming forced or too jarring is difficult, but the actors made it appear seamless.

The performance lives up to its hype and, as the Cumberbatch himself said, will hopefully excite a whole new generation, inspiring them to explore more Shakespeare and theatre as a whole.

The final words, as they should, go to Shakespeare himself: Goodnight sweet prince.

Abigail Houseman


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