22 November 2019 | TheLittleSongbird
"To be, or not be: that is the question"
One can see why 'Hamlet' is one of Shakespeare's best known and acclaimed plays with such memorable characters, some of the most deservedly famous in all literature, and text often quoted and referenced. It is long and not easy to perform at all, but the characterisation, language and complex emotions and psychology have always riveted me and it has always been one of my favourites from Shakespeare.
Despite liking Benedict Cumberbatch very much as an actor and really looking forward to seeing what he would do to this challenging part, and also finding most of the performances good, this production considering how highly anticipated it was (when it came out and to me) should have been much better. Although there were a fair number of issues with the previous National Theatre Live production of 'Hamlet', which had staging misjudgments (especially Orphelia), a too dominant oppressive theme and didn't appeal visually, it also boasted a superb Rory Kinnear, was a production that understood the character of Polonius, great staging of the Mousetrap scene and the psychology of the characters was right on.
For me, this 2015 production was a case of having a lot of style but was lacking in the depth and it also felt overblown in staging to me and under-explored in characterisation. Am aware that this is unlikely to be a popular review and honestly wanted to be more positive and give it a higher rating, but regrettably can't.
The mixed rating is namely for the performances. Cumberbatch is the main reason to see the production, he is utterly compelling throughout in every way and makes Hamlet a flawed character but worth identifying with. Of the actors too, although the cast do do very well all things considered, Cumberbatch is the only one to really get under the skin of the role and in a way where the viewer understands Hamlet and how and why he came to be and behave the way he does. Leo Bill is one of the better Horatios seen in a while, not making the character too sympathetic, and one can see in the performance of Jim Norton how Polonius represents one of the main themes of 'Hamlet' of appearance and reality contrasting.
Sian Brooke is a poignant Orphelia and her anxious state of mind in her later scenes is believable without being over-the-top, this production doesn't go too far with this role in the way the Kinnear 'Hamlet' did. Ciaran Hinds doesn't ennoble or humanise Claudius too much and is repellent enough, if not as serpentine as Patrick Malahide in the earlier National Theatre Live production. Anastasia Hille does wonders with Gertrude, making her a conflicted character and Karl Johnson is spooky as the ghost.
It is a good-looking production, though in the sets more than anything else. The sets are beautifully designed and a lot of effort went into them. The lighting is also atmospheric. Was a little more mixed on the costumes but they looked good at least. The gale-driven torrent of leaves touch was effective and Orphelia's demise was intriguing to say the least, different but not pointlessly so like the previous NTL 'Hamlet' performance.
On the other hand, there could have been much more of a sense of time and place, the period didn't come over as very obvious to me. The costumes looked good but stylistically were too much of a mishmash of periods. There is a distracting overuse of freeze frames and slow motion that come over as gimmicky and actually affect the production's momentum.
Where this 'Hamlet' significantly falls down is in the stage direction, which takes the opening up of the drama too literally and feels overblown and cluttered, appreciate that it didn't come over as stagy but this was too much. With a lot of staging touches that detract from the drama rather than enhance, didn't even see the point of a lot of them. Have not seen the play scene this ineptly staged, one doesn't even really get what the scene is about and what is meant to be happening and that is a worrying sign. The cuts give the production a choppy feel and affects the coherence as well.
Character relationships are badly under-explored, a prime example being between Claudius and Gertrude, the psychology of the characters is vague and lacks complexity and the emotional impact is just not there and like the crew were more pre-occupied with the staging touches and how the production looks, with the general lack of depth when it came to the substance this left me cold.
Altogether, worth a look for Cumberbatch primarily but disappointing. 5/10