What do you think of when you hear Hamlet? I think of Kenneth Branagh and his four-hour, self-indulgent, required film for high school. I’m pretty sure I slept through most of it, but it was okay because by the time I woke up, I still wasn’t following the heavy Shakespearean dialogue. From that moment on, I vowed to never sit through Hamlet again.
That was until Benedict Cumberbatch announced he would be starring in the play this year. I was not the only one to put my prejudice aside. My husband also agreed to see it despite him swearing off Shakespeare after a very long performance of Antony and Cleopatra at The Globe Theatre last summer. So, when tickets went on sale to the public, I sat at my computer waiting impatiently as my spot in the queue went from 3,000 to 1.
And last Thursday night was our time to see Benedict in his Hamlet glory.
The play opened with Benedict sitting alone listening to Nature Boy on vinyl. The audience erupted in applause instantly. I looked around the dark auditorium wondering why?…he didn’t do anything yet. None of the other plays I have seen began with applause.
Just to clarify: I am a Benedict Cumberbatch fan. By no means do I believe he doesn’t deserve applause for his work or acting ability. I just would expect applause to happen after he had done something worthy of it. At this point, he was just sitting on the floor, looking through a photo album.
But moments later, Horatio burst through the doors and the play began. The set was incredibly gorgeous. I have never seen such an expansive and intricate facade. Through open doors, you can see paintings just out of view keeping the feel of the palace instead of unfinished wood and scaffolding more common in “behind the scenes.”
What I have grown accustomed to is a small stage with as little moving parts as possible. Not this time. The “extras” or background actors were the clearing crew. Dressed in costumes for the occasions, ie: waitstaff, soldiers, etc., they would come out and shift around props and clear the stage. For such a huge space, I completely understand it, but I found myself getting distracted.
It could have been because my mind was wandering through the thick Shakespearean dialogue as words and accents blended together. But I can tell you the waiter snuffed out every single lit candle, save one, on the dining room table with a silver snuffer while Laretes spoke to Ophelia. What the brother and sister spoke of, I’m not entirely sure.
The story of Hamlet, if you don’t know it, is about the death of a king. Hamlet’s father died, and not two months later, his mother married his uncle. After being visited by the ghost of his father, Hamlet is convinced his father was murdered and is determined to get his mother and uncle to confess. He feigns going mad, casting his love for Ophelia aside and works tirelessly to find out the truth. Hamlet accidentally murders Ophelia’s father giving Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, reasons to send him away. But much to Claudius’ chagrin, Hamlet returns.
I won’t ruin the ending, but needless to say, it is a very involved story line that spans 4,000 lines of dialogue; 1,500 of which are for Hamlet alone. The first part of the play was almost 2 hours. I found myself begging for the intermission. I could not concentrate and retain any more information. I was actually quite sad by this revelation because when this play first came out in 1599, audiences were captivated, sometimes on their feet, for the full four hours. It’s a sign of the modern age, I guess.
The second part was just under an hour and moved quite quickly to the epic conclusion. Benedict was a powerhouse (and quite the fencer). He had a wide array of emotions that came through incredibly clearly. His trademark hand gestures were intact as was his lithe ability to jump from table to chair to ground with ease that I have seen time and time again in Sherlock.
Ciaran Hinds was the other big name in this production. I adore him and was so pleased to see his face in the play. He was, occasionally, difficult to understand though. His voice was soft and mumbled and not as commanding as Claudius could have been. Some of the other actors were also quite soft-spoken in comparison to the angry voice of Benedict, so there was intermittent microphone usage. It was hardly consistent and took us by surprise when it did click on.
The lighting was a character in and of itself. We were sat on the far right side of the auditorium, so when there was action occurring just out of our view, the shadows filled us in. It created a much darker and epic feel to the entire play.
Hamlet was first written in 1599 and hailed as one of Shakespeare’s most important plays to date. Taking the place of a Julius Caesar sequel, Shakespeare wrote the play already knowing he would cast Richard Burbage in the lead role and took the role of the Ghost himself.
Earning the role of Hamlet is a sort of rite of passage for actors, which is why I fully understand why Benedict wanted to take on this part. I would have bought tickets to see him read the phone book, but thankfully, we were given a chance to see a modern-ish retelling of this classic story with some one-of-a-kind actors.