What English-speaker doesn’t know the famous first line, “To be or not to be”? That soliloquy comes from the nunnery scene in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The London National Theatre Hamlet has the blues but he also has a major case of Peter Pan syndrome in the Barbican production that stars Benedict Cumberbatch. The production was broadcast live to theaters in the U.S. last month (Oct. 15) as part of the National Theatre Live (see www.ntlive.com for details about encore broadcasts in your area). There are scheduled encore screenings for Nov. 10 (Tuesday). The stage production closed at the end of October.
Director Lydnsey Turner’s staging of this tragedy has changed things around. We begin, not with the watchmen seeing a ghost, but it our titular character. We first see this Hamlet sitting on the floor, dressed casually in dark vaguely contemporary clothes while listening to a record (not a CD) of Nat King Cole singing “Nature Boy.” He will be joined by a friend , Horatio (Leo Bill), who carries a rucksack on his back. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the two sentinels, Barnardo and Francisco later.
The dark room breaks apart to reveal a larger two-level set—a palace with a stairway to an upper level, nicely decorated with an ornate guardrail (designed by Es Devlin) Hamlet sulkily joins his mother, Gertrude (Anastasia Hille), and his new father, the man who had been his uncle, Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) for dinner . The marriage seems to have come with unseemly haste, but then again, maybe the kingdom needs a man of action. Hamlet is decidedly not this. The blue walls of the stylish art deco mansion offset the white and off-white clothes of the court as they sit at the long table with Gertrude and Claudius at its head.
The women are in semi-formal dress with Gertrude wearing a crown-like hair ornament and the men are in white uniform. Hamlet suddenly is a dark and common bird amongst these showy men and women. From the blue walls of the mansion above the diners, portraits of ancestors in their military best alongside the antique arms they once wielded look down with disapproval.
Also at the table are Ophelia (Sian Brooke), her brother Laertes ( Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and their father Polonius (Jim Norton). The casting is color-blind, but that is the least of the problems here. Ophelia and Polonius bid Laertes good-bye.
The basic plot skeleton remains. Hamlet meets his father’s ghost. His father, Hamlet senior, reveals he was murdered by Claudius. Hamlet hesitates to exact his revenge. While he’s brooding, Gertrude and Claudius worry. Hamlet now rejects Ophelia who he had previously fervently courted. Polonius suggests that Hamlet has been driven made by love. Hamlet has a theatrical troupe stage a play that parallels the murder of Hamlet senior by Claudius, convincing him of his uncle’s guilt.
Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius and is sent away. He will return, but it will be after the funeral of Polonius and during the funeral of Ophelia. Laertes has returned and seeks revenge, but is seduced into helping Claudius with his evil scheme.
In this production, Hamlet does eventually dress up in a soldier’s uniform, one that matches the life-sized toy soldiers and he is playing in the castle when his friends, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz find him. Visually this is clever and establishes the Hamlet as a man-child. Other choices, such as the David Bowie T-shirt under a tux jacket with the word “king” written on it as Hamlet plays the king during the meta-lay are more questionable.
The foreboding news of Fortinbras in the distant, marching to reclaim his father’s lands, is made more threatening in the second half as the mansion is blasted open and dark debris comes tumbling in. The floors become covered with rock and debris. War is here at Elsinore, inside the court and outside from Fortinbras.
“Hamlet” is about three sons—the hesitant overly intellectual Hamlet, the rashly brave Laertes and the man of both thought and action, Fortinbras. All three act to honor their fathers, but only Fortinbras gets it right. While visually stunning, this “Hamlet” doesn’t quite work. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is a man who has remained a child overlong and is pulled unwillingly into adulthood. He doesn’t rage like Kenneth Branagh in his 1996 242-minute-long movie adaptation of “Hamlet,” nor does he verbally attack Polonius with a rapier sharp anger. This Hamlet sulks and whines. One feels he’s be perfectly happy to play soldier in his toy castle with is toy soldiers for a bit longer if daddy where still alive. That gives too little for Laertes to work against. Instead they are both childish before the noble Fortinbras.
Still this is a production worth seeing and was to date the most popular NT Live broadcast. Cumberbatch has a better on-stage match in the NT Live production of “Frankenstein,” which can also be seen in encore performances.