Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Micah's Performance Review

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While I thought the National Theater Live take on Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was both fresh and engaging, I had a problem with three things:

1. Representation of Ophelia: Having read the play all of one time, I am a perfect expert on how this character should be portrayed on the stage. 
Kidding. But even with my amateur sense of Ophelia, I was a little disappointed with the actress playing her, Sian Brooke, or at least, how she was written. She seemed less like the favored daughter of the court than a timid little mouse, and while the scene where Cumberbatch's Hamlet confronts her was very effective, given how much larger he was, looming over her and menacing as he tells her, "get thee to a nunnery," the overall effect was dissatisfactory. Why? Because Ophelia is a mix of unrequited love, grief, confusion, frustrated hopes, obedience, beauty, despair--there's got to be emotion of all kinds, but most importantly, this sense of infectious madness that overtakes her as her world descends into lunacy. And while the actress was conveying emotion, I didn't really get a sense of deterioration. In one scene, she was timid. The next, upset. The next, grief-stricken. And that was as far as she went. She didn't go from obedient daughter to resident lunatic. Sure, they've got her wandering over a stage full of debris in a torn black dress. But even that wasn't far enough for me. And I disliked her haircut because it didn't look wild enough; the bangs were too rigidly controlled, even when she was supposed to be raving at Gertrude. 

2. Scenery:   As mentioned in Elise's post, the setting was a little confusing because they had props from different eras. For example, a stage straight from Victorian England, a war table from the London underground tunnels of Churchill, and then WWI-era soldiers. The one effective instance of this sort of chronological confusion was when Cumberbatch's Hamlet donned a makeshift doublet over his David Bowie t-shirt. Seeing him contemplate murder in Converses while fingering a rapier sort of symbolized his mental tumult and psychological confusion. At other points, however, the "timelessness" they were perhaps attempting to evoke became more distracting than anything. Besides that, there were all sorts of toys--wooden doll-houses, tin soldiers, and a rocking horse--beneath the stage. The soldiers became part of a scene with Hamlet (which I thought immensely effective) but the remainder of the toys' presence puzzled me. Did they symbolize a loss of childhood? A romantic Elizabethan world gone sour? The ghost of Christmases past? I really have no idea what they were going for.

3. Claudius' Evil Asides: They cut out several important lines in Act III, Scene I, where Claudius murmurs something about his conscience being awakened as Polonius is instructing Ophelia to put on a show of loveliness and occupation to catch Hamlet unawares when he "happens" upon her. While I doubt the staging could have allowed for these few lines to be delivered without stretching the audience's powers to believe the other characters' hadn't heard, I still feel that the audience loses something if they're left to suppose Claudius' conscience is awakened by the boldness of the play alone. His internal struggle is supposed to be building and building to the climatic moment where he prays and his nephew contemplates murder. It was perfectly all right as it was . . . but still. It bothered me. 

Everything I Loved:
- the guy playing Claudius, Ciaran Hinds--during his monologues, you could feel the twisted ambition oozing off of him like pus from a wound. It was great
- the guy playing Fortinbras--I don't know how he managed to convey the struggle of a grieving son in one scene, but he totally did. The backlighting and scenery really helped; he was literally overlooking a war-torn landscape
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--they seemed like two weird friends Hamlet would have, appropriately perplexed by his behaviors
- the scene with Hamlet peering over the balcony at his unrepentant uncle, the camera focusing on the shadow Cumberbatch cast on the wall--really got at the demons in Hamlet's mind
- The slow-motion movements of the actors during Hamlet's asides. This showed he was clearly removed from the world around him, despite being physically present.
- The soundtrack--overbearing, but effective.
- I don't know how you could get a better Hamlet than Cumberbatch. He was menacing at times, perpetually brooding, but so obviously despairing, you wanted to rush through the screen and hug him. His wild antics were appropriately ridiculous, his violence believable, and his interactions with Ophelia, Claudius, and his mother were thick with tensions and double entendres. During the play scene, he was practically snarling at Gertrude and Ophelia. Sometimes childlike and obviously missing his father, but just as often a dark incarnation of his former self, he knew how to appropriately convey internal tumult and profound mental conflict. It was all moving.
- the guy playing Horatio, Leo Bill. He just looks like Horatio, constant and practical and loyal to a fault. A bad casting choice could have really messed up the play, but he was the perfect fit


  1. Your description of Claudius is on point! :)

  2. I agree, their portrayal of Ophelia was problematic in that she kinda became a timid set piece to exaggerate Cumberbatch's tirades rather than a character in herself. Also what was with the camera? I felt like it was a cool idea but they didn't explore it at all and it added little to her character.

    1. I think the camera thing kind of relates to what you said in your post, about the production being a modern take like most "modern takes," namely overambitious. They had a lot of artistic threads that they failed to interweave in any meaningful pattern, so that the visual effect was cool, but a little . . . confusing?