Thursday, October 22, 2015

My thoughts on Hamlet (the Cumberbatch production and the play in general)

NYU Skirball
That's right, we're talking about something different today! I'm not going to be yammering on about writing (*insert shocked face here*), but instead, I'll be using my degree today.

For those who do not know, I hold two degrees. One in Secondary Education (Certified for 7th thru 12th Grade) and a BA in Theatre with emphasis on Directing and Performance (but I studied theatre tech/design a lot as well, and taught it) and a minor in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing and Shakespeare (this means I might have a clue to what I'm talking about, but then again, I'm no super-scholar so take my opinions as just that, opinions and nothing more. Meaning, by God, don't get up in arms with my thoughts on this.)

Why are we going back to our "previous career"? Well, as this slightly blurry photo of the program" from my evening last night (the phone that took the photo a cracked-all-to-hell screen and I took this in the subway with said broken-to-shit, forgive the slightly blurry character names if thou wilt).

With seven years in college, a BA in Theatre, and an education certification for teaching Theatre under my belt (not to mention all my other training starting *cough cough* thirty-three years ago), you can imagine I've seen, pardon my French, a fuck-ton of Hamlet productions. I've also seen many of the movies of it as well. That said, I'm never tired of seeing The Bard's work invented and re-invented on stage or screen (Dear God, Macbeth with Michael Fassbender this December cannot come fast enough!) but I do get tired of seeing Hamlet's character done the same way.

Sometimes I feel this quiet, complicit, and entertained boredom while watching this particular tragedy of Shakespeare's. You're wondering now how can one be both entertained and bored and I say, easily. For you see, you love the language, the sets, the world, the acting...but it's just another version of the thing you've already seen so you're mildly bored. Sure, you enjoy the show, but it's more of a soaking up of artistic words to fill your soul vs. them penetrating your heart and mind. Yes? Are you with me? Good.

Lyndsey Turner's production of Hamlet is not that! It is entertaining from start to (*Spoiler Alert*) Hamlet's deadly finish. Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of the title character will not bore you in the least, no matter how many times you've seen the Danish Prince wail about his father's murder for three hours.

Before I move on, I should like to add that I've not seen a production of Hamlet since my dear friend, State Trooper Paul Butterfield, was murdered and I can tell you that I had a much more profound understanding of the pain an anguish of Hamlet and Laertes grief this time around (No, I do not count Ophelia in that list because, frankly, though there are moments where your mind is scattered and you want to disappear into it, I feel she's a bit over the top for realism. Not with the acting, though, it too can be painful to watch when it is, but it's the writing of her that gets me. I'm never sad to see her go. I am sad, however, to see Hamlet's reaction to her death, and Laertes' as well, if he's not spent his wad of emotion on "how dare my dad be killed on accident" rage in the scene prior. But I'll get into that later.).

Let's hit upon the controversy of the opening scene first, shall we? Get that out of the way? So, if you do not know, the play used to open with the "To Be, Or Not To Be" speech. And hey, shocker, people got pissed (to put it lightly), and because of that, it was moved elsewhere. A friend of mine says that it's been said that audience members felt they were dumbing it down for the BC fans with that. As an director, and a director of well reviewed NYC productions of Shakespeare, I will tell you that no director worth his or her merit would ever do this. So then why open with it? I have a theory...

The play opens with Hamlet sitting alone on stage with a trunk of his father's things while listening to music on an record player that either reminds him of his father or is his father's favorite record (I'd bet option two). Because of this, I can see why Ms. Turner put the famous speech at this spot. It would speak volumes to Hamlet's mindset to hear it here. It would tell you how broken he is inside, how he is weighing the idea of leaving this world, how he is pondering death and loss...I could go on and on but you get the picture.

Mind you, when forced to put it "back" to "where it belongs," Turner did not put it in the usual spot (which is Act III, Scene 1, just prior to his "Get thee to a nunnery" speech to Ophelia) but instead, she slid it into Act II, Scene 2. If you scroll down on the page I've linked for the latter, to almost mid way, you'll see the conversation between Hamlet and Polonius. Turner slipped the "to be or not to be" after Polonius leaves the room. To connect to this, Turner has Hamlet act out being hung with an item hanging around his neck when he says the line, "Except my life." She then has Polonius bid his farewell and Hamlet pulls on the "noose" again with his third, "except my life," and then goes into the famous speech. Here, I've copy/pasted the section (with editing and notes to what happened on the London stage the night it was filmed):

My honourable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.
You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will willingly part withal: except my life, except my life, except my life (if I remember correctly, this last one was not said here, but put after Hamlet barely notices Polonius leave on the next line, and says it after he's I've inserted below)
Fare you well, my lord.
Except my life... (pulls on the noose-type object, takes it off as he ponders for a quick moment)
To be, or not to be, that is the question...

Normally, at this point, instead of the question posed of existing or not, the script says, "Enter ROZENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN." But they do not in Turner's rendition, obviously, because we are still in the early part of Shakespeare's Act II.

Personally, I feel it works well in the new location Turner has snugly placed it. In fact, I like this spot better than throwing it in where it is supposed to be. If Cumberbatch wasn't as good of an actor it may not have been pulled off as seamlessly as it did in this location, but he connected the previous conversation into it flawlessly. Interestingly enough, at the time I knew, in the back of my mind, that this still wasn't the right spot, but I didn't consciously realize it enough to ponder it, for I was too drawn in by the choices Cumberbatch was making to give a damn on how the director had moved sections of text around.**
**Side Note: EVERYONE MOVES TEXT AROUND because Shakespeare's plays are fucking some of the whiners need to accept that fact and get over themselves. Juuuust sayin'...

All right, with that topic covered, I'm going to talk about the three main reasons I liked it followed by what I wasn't super fond of.

The "Alas, poor Yorick" scene between Hamlet & Horatio
First off: Age. Hamlet is supposed to be a college boy in this (and in England, kids go off to University earlier than we Americans do, keep that in mind), yet so many productions toss that out the window and play him as a young man closer in maturity to a 33 year old...that has always stuck in my craw. But how do you fix that, really? Turner did something wonderful, she helped us see it by having Horatio (played by Leo Bill wonderfully, might I add) show up with his backpack and college age appropriate clothing and his presence helps us remember Hamlet's real age (same with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's look...and dear God, I really hope those are their last names). By doing this, Cumberbatch was able to have fun with the "mad" (as in crazy, not upset) sections and treat them more like a petulant young adult being difficult and annoying as they are prone to do when they are upset with their parents. I should know, I remember being that way when my parents got divorced...and that's not half as bad as (*Spoiler Alert*) learning your father was murdered by his brother so he could take his crown and marry his wife, your mother.

Secondly: Emotional level of Hamlet.
Turner/Cumberbatch's Hamlet was rash/impulsive, self and mission absorbed, smart mouthed (as well as smart in general), who you honestly were not sure if he was crazy or just pretending to be, though it came off more the latter than the former, which I also approve of. As someone who has gone through the grief of a loved one murdered, I can say that you feel mentally and emotionally scattered as well as stunted. You are so angry that you want to scream at the top of your lungs and hit things with a bat. You are prone to tears without much provocation and you are suddenly more emotional about all things...because life feels jagged and breathing air hurts (metaphorically speaking, of course). All of these were present in Cumberbatch's performance.

My friend who went with me to see the filmed version of the London play, who has a great love of Shakespeare (specifically Macbeth), wasn't as fond of it as I. She commented on another actor's portrayal of Hamlet and said it was "less weepy and emotional." Not that she was stomping on Cumberbatch's choice on that (she too is a fan of his work), she was just stating a fact and her tone suggested she liked the more subtle crazy of a collected human (or as collected as one can be when playing crazy and upset). And you know what? That's an okay portrayal too. No, really, it is! However, I feel THAT is the version I ALWAYS see. No one finds the humor, no one finds the childlike brat who is angry, no one explores the rollercoaster ride that your emotions are in the grief you deal with of someone who is murdered. It's not like normal grief and I'm sorry if that offends anyone.

Now, I'm not downplaying the grief anyone has felt for those who die of more natural causes by any means...I'm saying its different in a way that you cannot fathom unless you go through it (and dear God, I pray you never do). The closest you might come to understanding what I'm talking about is if you've experienced a loved one dying from Cancer (and allied diseases). There's a hate for the disease (hence the platform out there that raises money for Cancer patients and research called, "Fuck Cancer.") and the unfairness of it's selection process that is slightly similar to the grief of one killed by a human at random.

This brings me to...Ophelia. And though my notes pertain to emotion, it falls under my un-favorite things, so we'll come back to this.

Ciaran Hinds as Claudius
Thirdly: The acting of the entire cast (save for one, and no, not Ophelia), the technical design, and the direction of the piece.
Yes yes yes, I'm one of those people. LOL! I notice the lights, sound, set, costumes, and blocking (planned movement on stage by the director for the actors) and they make the environment of the play real for me (psst, they're meant to, I'm not weird...or rather, I'm not super weird) and transport me to the realm of reality of the piece of drama, speaking almost more volumes about the show than the actors lines or their talent do. I think that's why my specialty in writing is World Building: I know how important it is on stage and thus have transferred it to my books.
In short, if any of these pull you out of the being in the moment of a production (except, of course, when they are used to do that specifically) then they are a fail. That only happened in one way for me in this show and I'm picky, so two thumbs up for the design team and director!

"A talented sound and light designer are worth their weight
in gold and when you find them you hold on them for dear life."
- Said every director, ever

What didn't I love? Well...there was one set choice I had issues with and three actors whose work I felt wasn't as amazing as I'd have liked, one of them is script based so it's no one's fault but Shakespeare's and yes, I just said that and no, I do not apologize, and yes, I know why it was written as it was and forgive The Bard.
We'll start with that last item. You see, I rarely like the portrayal of Ophelia but that has nothing to do with the actress herself. It's like this, Shakespeare's notion here is that a man (Laertes, Ophelia's brother or Hamlet, for that matter) can loose his father and rage, fight, and though he acts rashly with bad choices, he still keeps his head. But a woman who deals with the same thing looses her ever-living-fucking-mind. I don't just mean she's a bit mad like no no...she sings weird songs and talks about random things and flutters about like a loon in an asylum and does not even recognize anyone, not even her brother.
Look, sure, were there times in my grief for Paul that I wanted to check out? Sure! Did I feel a bit all over the place? You bet! So much so that I went into a depression? Oh boy, did I ever! But to loose my friggin' mind and basically act as if my brain was removed, melted down in a skillet, scrambled about, and shoved back in my head...NO.  No no no no no. Hell, not even Hamlet (who is supposed to be our truly mad, as in crazy, character) gets this bad. Sure, you can play him that way, but that becomes one dimensional and takes away his intellect, in my opinion. And that is where I get bored watching, as previously mentioned.

So...yeah, Ophelia's arc is bothersome to me on principle so no matter who is playing the role, they are starting out with that on their shoulders in my mind. Now that I think on it, and go back to watch some YouTube clips, maybe its just the Ophelia of stage productions that bores me. Don't get me wrong, I still am not a fan of the woman being frail and going bat-shit crazy pants when men don't, but, I found I liked the role better in the movies. Maybe because it offers more for the role in some ways (more takes, close ups to see inner dialogue, & time on "stage" usually, to name a few.) Case in point, of the 4 movie versions I've seen, I did love Helena Bonham Carter in the Mel Gibson adaptation in 1990 (135 min version) and Kate Winslet in Kenneth Branagh's full script adaptation in 1996 (242 min version).

The actress for this London production was Sian Brooke. Did she do a good job with the shitty hand she was dealt? Sadly I wasn't really taken by her. She was okay and at times interesting, but it was fleeting and she felt washed out (and what is up with the horrible yellow sweater outfit? *shudders*). Did the director find great things to add to her character (like playing the piano and taking pictures all the time)? YEP! But you can only do so much. I did love when she wonders upstage on the big mound of dirt and walks into this beam of light offstage (this is the best exit in the whole show, if you know she's heading off to...SPOILER ALERT...drown) I bid her a fond farewell but not a bitter one, for as wishy-washy as the character was, at least she wasn't horribly annoying like many you see.

Secondly, I wasn't a fan of the weird dirt choice. Here's a pic from the end of the theater's first half of the show as Claudius (Hamlet's Uncle, now King & Stepfather) stands center stage: 

As you can see, there's all this dirt flying in from every angle and it looks cool! It's like a bunch of black birds flying in like bad omens...but I didn't think it would still be there for the second half nor in the abundance of it they chose. For the entire stage was covered and in some areas in huge piles (And who has to clean that and set it up each night? I wouldn't want that matter how close it got me to Benedict Cumberbatch, and that's saying something!). The first half ends shortly after (*Spoiler Alert*) Hamlet accidently kills Polonius thinking he's his Uncle (because he's hidden behind a curtain to eavesdrop on a conversation betwixt Hamlet and his mother in her chambers...well, in this production it's in the main room and the curtain is the one of the makeshift stage the visiting minstrels, who also were rather unimpressive, use)...........and ya know more "Spoiler Alert" warnings...look, EVERY FUCKING MAIN PERSON DIES IN THIS SHOW (it's Les Miserables w/o the "happy ending") except friggin' Horatio who lives to tell Hamlet's story...oh, and Fortinbras (the Prince of Norway guy we never really care much about as it's an underlying thing in the story that I won't bore you by going into) who comes in at the end to say lines no one cares about.

The mounds of dirt (or dirt like substance, more correctly) are seen better in this pic on the right with Gertrude opening Ophelia's trunk, worked really well in the second half of the production for the grave digger scene, the scenes out on the land when Hamlet is traveling, for the burial of Ophelia, or for when we see Fortinbras traveling closer to Elsinore (what Hamlet's home city is called...and you can't forget that because jeebus, I swear the line, "You're welcome at Elsinore," is said way too much). But it was really odd when they were inside the castle.
I am guessing that it was meant to symbolize all the dirt in their lives (lies, deceit, greed, murder, and the madness) piling up. Every other aspect of the set/setting was done in a realistic concept, so to jump to a symbolic element felt weird, especially when they acted like it was really there, because...why would they allow all that to be piled up inside and where would it have come from? Thus, each indoor scene was hard for me to stay connected to as I found myself watching their feet walk around on the stuff. Oh, and when Laertes must duel Hamlet, all I could think was, "Dear God, they're going to fall and hurt themselves on that shit!" Not what you want your audience to think about.
Lastly, I was not a fan of two other main characters. I didn't dislike them, just like I didn't dislike Sian, but I wasn't loving their work either.

First, the woman who played Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Anastasia Hille). In short, she just didn't do it for me...though, her scene with Hamlet when he lays out her sins before her and asks her to not go back to his Uncle's bed, pic of which seen below, was rather wonderful...though, a lot of that was because Benedict was in his element in this scene.

My second actor I wasn't 100% happy with, though I liked him better than Ophelia or Gertrude, was the man who played Laertes: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. I know I know, he's a great actor and is very talented!!! I just wasn't there with him, if that makes sense. I think I might have too high of a bar set in my head for this role, and hence I am ever critical. And to be honest, it really comes down to that I didn't like his entrance in the second half of the show...and that might've been a directorial choice so, Kobna, I do apologize if that's the case.

Here's the thing: Laertes enters hot-n-mad with a gun in his hand and soldiers (where did these followers come from and where did they go after he tells them they can back off? So weird.) backing him up who are set to make him king and fight to avenge his father's death (which even Laertes knows nothing about in the sense of how, why, and who). His anger is already so up in the stratosphere that when he learns that Hamlet killed his dad there's not too much further for the character to build up to, but Kobna is talented enough to find it. It's when Ophelia dies right on the heels of the previous scene (in this version of the play that is) that he now has nowhere to go emotionally and it comes across a bit manic and flat.
This should be the moment when Laertes hits his peak of anger and despair. But he entered so big and wrought with these two items that by this point, he just was a one trick (ie: emotion) pony. I all just felt like one anger-fest scene of him metaphorically banging his chest and yelling all his lines (with his mic cutting in and out). The anguish should be felt by us, the audience, but I didn't feel that way. I just kept wanting to move on to the next scene (the problem with knowing the grave digger scene is coming up and it being a fan favorite of the play). I will say that the scene was mildly saved by Claudius' line to Gertrude after she delivers the horrible blow of telling the story of how Ophelia died and Laertes runs off in "I need my space to think" agony: "I just got him calmed down," or something like that.

I feel like I should've talked about what I didn't love first so I could end with what I did love about this production since even my "not so favorite" things cannot outweigh that I LOVED this show. Cumberbatch is brilliant and exceptional in this role, like many things he does. But paired with my love for Shakespeare (though yes, I have issues with some things in some of his plays, but who doesn't?) it made this such a great watch, that I plan to see it again when the encore presentation of the film hits theaters later this year or early next.

I will say this, also...there were things I caught about the storyline in this show that I've missed before, and considering how many times I've seen this, THAT is a remarkable and astounding fact that is yet another reason to go see this film if it comes to your city. Any team (actors/directors/etc.) who can portray the language that well deserves to be seen by all! In fact, click HERE to read review comments by the "all" who had things to say about this production in England.

If by some miracle you read this whole thing, bravo! I get wordy and can go on and on when it comes to Shakespeare...LOL!

Tamsin :)

P.S. You may have noticed on the program a tiny picture of Tom Hiddleston. That's because they're going to show an encore of the film of his play, Coriolanus, which is absolutely stupendous! I can't wait to see it again!

No comments:

Post a Comment