“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
So this is part 2 of this post about going to see the Sonia Friedman Productions Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The first part of the post got ‘a bit’ unwieldy so I separated this actual-play-focused section off.
It should be noted that there will be SPOILERS, for which this is the only warning, both of the production-specific and 400-year-old-original-play kind.
As you may have already read, the play opens with the infamous “To be or not to be…” soliloquy which, even I know, is traditionally considerably more in the middle of the play. The curtain lifts to reveal only the very front of the stage the rest separated off & hidden behind a screen*. It holds only a couple of boxes of stuff and Hamlet. Hamlet sorts through the boxes as Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy plays on a record player (the player will be seen often in the play). It’s only after the song ends that he starts to speak. Such a distinctive voice has Cumberbatch that this is really what it took to hit home that I was in the same room (a big room granted, but a room) as him. I’m not a seasoned Shakespeare critic but I saw no harm in this rearrangement. It was intimate – the first words you hear, by the first & only character you’ve met, spoken as downstage as possible on the only sliver of stage you’ve seen which itself is very unfurnished. There is nothing to distract you from it and it draws you in.
Shortly after this the screen does rise to reveal the rest of the stage. The set was beautiful, a large hall in a palace complete with bookcases, family portraits, swords on the wall and a grand piano. This set did not change throughout the performance and changing locations were conveyed by set pieces (e.g. chairs, tables, etc.) and lighting. The set included an over hanging balcony with a staircase up to it and numerous exits/entrances on both levels. So there were many different ‘corners’ in which action could & did take place. The largest set change occurred after the interval when the curtain rose again to reveal there were now huge slurries(?) of black earth spilling through the stage exits so that not a bit of the stage was not covered in a least a layer of grime. Very clearly symbolising decay & descent, a visualisation of “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” if you will.
Despite it’s ‘tragedy’ status the play was not without laughs, though you kind of know where you stand once the primary comic relief (Polonius) is stabbed in the chest. Apart from Polonius, the Gravedigger is golden comedy-wise and much amusement is to be gained from the early points of Hamlet feigning madness – highlights include him playing with a toy castle and forcing a reluctant Rosencrantz into dancing (a dance with rather fancy footwork) with him.
I really enjoyed a technique in the production which was first used in Hamlet’s first soliloquy after “To be or not to be.” Claudius & Gertrude’s wedding guests are all seated around a table, or rather along one side so that you can actually see all of them, the lighting shifts and Hamlet begins his soliloquy but, instead of freezing as I first thought, the other actors go into slow motion. It’s really neat – it saves time as by the time Hamlet finishes and everyone returns to normal speed the other actors have stood and are just finishing leaving the room, it means the action doesn’t become too static (or dull) while still separating off his speech from the regular conversation and focusing on it. The problem I’ve always found with ‘still images’ is that it is hard to hold a position for a long period of time, particularly ones with bigger gestures which are more interesting to look at but also more tiring. Also, like a smile, they get ‘fixed’ and cease to look natural. This soliloquy is also the one time I couldn’t restrain my mind from wandering off to Sherlock – as Hamlet got up and climbed over a table at a wedding to make a speech the parallel was too strong to resist:
Back to Hamlet: similar to the slow motion, another cool thing was when the action was made to seem as if it was on fast-forward or being rewound. It’s hard to get your head around that this was actually being acted out in front of you – while an easy thing to render in post-production to TV/film, surely it must be quite a technical feat to reproduce the effect on stage.
Previous to opening very little was divulged about the costuming and it’s relevance to the time period the production was to be set in. Coming away from the play, I still couldn’t say when it was set. It definitely wasn’t set in Shakespeare’s time nor any previous period which the playwright may have intended. The only dress of such a period worn was by the players when performing. No, it was, more or less, firmly last century but it was hard to pin it down. The footmen (who could handily move set pieces around without disrupting the play) were in livery (think Jane Austen) but women in similar background roles, e.g. Voltemand wore clothes like 21st century formal, female work-wear. At least one player wore a definitely 70s style outfit, while Claudius usually wore tweed suits – very country-estate-esque, would not have looked out of place in Downton Abbey but could easily fit in at a later date. Hamlet himself was generally casually dressed (t-shirt etc.) but dressed up in the ceremonial dress of a soldier (not unlike that of the Household Division – ones outside Buckingham Palace) when ‘mad’ and kept the trousers. He later donned a frock coat borrowed from the players which had KING written across the back of it – I guess (sorry, play ignorance) this is akin to David Tennant’s lopsided crown in the production starring him. I therefore conclude that the temporal setting is meant to be hard to place, though modern enough to feel relevant, giving it fluidity, a ‘tale as old as time’ feel (yes, I am quoting Beauty & the Beast, problem?).
One aspect I did feel differently about than in the David Tennant version, was the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. In Tennant’s version by the time Hamlet was dying in Horatio’s arms and Horatio was going for the poison I felt very emotional about the two of them in a way I best convey with hand gestures and indistinct noises. That is not to say I was untouched by Cumberbatch’s Hamlet’s death (oh, no) nor that I didn’t like this Horatio – I did as I did care about their friendship, but it wasn’t quite the same. Perhaps this production just focused on it less, at the end of the day they’re different productions – for instance, I felt Rosencrantz & Guildenstern made a greater impression on me in this version. It should also probably be noted that I watched David Tennant’s Hamlet the Christmas of ’09 in between the 2 parts of David Tennant’s final Doctor Who story** End of Time so, as I prepared for his regeneration, seeing him die in anything was likely to have a higher emotional impact.
There was a standing ovation at the end which I’m happy to think was about more than just the largely female audience (seriously, female-dominated to a surprising degree – where are all the male Cumbercookies/Shakespeare-lovers?) expressing their adoration for Benedict Cumberbatch (not suggesting you have to be female to do this, nor that this is what every female present would wish to do) and was indeed due to appreciating a well-performed production because it deserved it.
Extra: The creepy tableau of children used in promotion has nothing to do with the actual production (apart from it being a Hamlet-themed tableau).
*In general, please forgive my very untechnical phraseology – it’s been a while since I studied Drama.
** Excluding Day of the Doctor, of course.