Reviewed by Emily O’Brien
The NT Live Hamlet opens with nostalgia: its star actor sits on the floor listening to records and sorting through old belongings with heavy sadness and longing. The space is confined and intimate, and it is Hamlet who asks “who’s there?” when Horatio enters. Soon, their small corner of space disappears into the actual vastness of the stage, as a massive, looming, inky set unfurls before us. This is a stately home as might be imagined in a Farrow and Ball photo shoot: all greeny-blacks and charcoal-blues, desolate, creaking and beautiful, with huge branches of white flowers, at once funereal and bridal, adorning a long banqueting table.
This dichotomy of the private, feeling individual overwhelmed by the public structures of familial and social expectations sets the tone for the production’s returning preoccupations. “He was a man”, Hamlet tells Horatio when the latter speaks of his father as a great king, the close-up camera of the live broadcast emphasising the poignancy of the words. Throughout, it is suggested that public roles have a distorting, even poisonous, effect on the individual. As Claudius (in a slickly menacing performance by Ciaran Hinds) lists impatiently how “your father lost a father…”, the audience, further bystanders, feel the ghastly inappropriateness of the conversation in the public, formal setting of the official dinner.
Hamlet’s soliloquies, then, are unambiguously staged as a retreat from this strained world. He jumps deftly atop the dinner table and shares his thoughts with the audience as the rest of the actors go into an extreme slow motion, forming a near freezeframe tableau as a backdrop to his escape into the personal and subjective. It seems that the audience is figured here as an understanding, almost comfortable presence, even as it also underlines the extent to which Hamlet is trapped. This relationship relies in part on the curious intimacy established by the celebrity presence of Benedict Cumberbatch and his impassioned performance — after all his face and body are deeply familiar, and a strong part of the appeal of star Shakespeare is that the audience “knows” this Hamlet before the play begins.
The production makes attempts to explore the geopolitical dimension of the play with its present-day resonances. The fracturing costs of conflict and displacement are expressed in the wreckage of the stage as a huge cloud of ash gushes onto the set at the close of the first half, leaving it drowned for the remainder of the performance. The play’s characters struggle on with life as they know it, climbing over the transformed and mutilated terrain, but the critique offered is unclear. Here, as elsewhere, the overwhelming visual beauty of the production seemed to submerge meaning rather than elucidate it. When Cumberbatch spoke directly to the audience during the applause, asking for their support for humanitarian relief of the crisis in Syria, it suggested the insufficiency of the exploration of these issues, rather than building on it.
Ophelia’s performance offered some moments of genuine pathos as she desperately tried to express herself beyond the lines scripted for her by the controlling, mostly male, presences in her life. She carries a camera with her, and clutches sheaves of letters, and at one horrific point, tries frantically to undercut her constant surveillance and her inability to speak by writing a note to Hamlet, who is too wrapped up in his own trauma to notice. The stock performance of her madness was disappointing, replete with jerky tics and hair pulling, but I was affected by the poignancy of her care for her bedraggled remaining possessions, and the painful tragedy of her urgent, staccato repetition of the lectures with which she has been burdened.
The prefatory footage supplied in the live broadcast shone a spotlight firmly on Benedict Cumberbatch and the significance of his taking up the role of Hamlet. Scenes showing the actor visiting a school reinforced the apparent societal import of this crowning play of the canon. There seemed to be a great hunger for an edifying and salvific meaning — both universal and for our time — to be found in this Hamlet, but the production, while sometimes painful and depressing, and not without power, was ultimately not revelatory, cathartic or clarifying. In the preceding interview, Cumberbatch told Melvin Bragg (who seemed to be expecting a more metaphysical answer) that each performance left him feeling tired and hungry, and that was about how I felt too.
There will be an encore screening of the NT Hamlet at the Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin on 6 January.
For incisive reviews giving detailed consideration to the cutting and reorganisation of the playtext, as well as to the specific effects of the live screening context, see those by Peter Kirwan, Tom Cornford, Holger Schott Syme, and Eoin Price.