Thursday, March 17, 2016

Just One Cliché After Another - A Review of Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet

Benedict Cumberbatch
I went to see a filmed version of a live performance at the Barbican Centre of Hamlet the other night, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Prince of Denmark.  I’m using the British –re spellings here as a way of doffing my hat to the Brits and their dedication to theatre and to drama.  What a glorious tradition it is: Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Sean Connery,  Sir John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, Peter Sellers, Tom Wilkinson, and the entire cast of Downton Abbey, to tick off a few of my favorites (consciously mentioning Maggie Smith twice).

Now comes the question of whether to put Benedict Cumberbatch with the greats or with the merely superb.

A performance of Hamlet is not just any night out at the theater.   It’s never just the story of a troubled soul; it’s always inevitably a celebration of the richness of the English language.  The crème de la crème of the work of the Bard.  So to undertake the challenge of yet another interpretation of Hamlet and the inevitable comparisons with John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier shows real courage, I should think.  In my view Cumberbatch did himself proud.

And it’s not just the leading actor who picks up the gauntlet.  The entire cast is first-rate. Hamlet (or Gamlet, as it’s pronounced in Russian) has been translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak and performed to the music of Shostakovich.  In Germany, “unser Shakespeare (our Shakespeare),” the translations by Schlegel and Tieck, have been taken by some to be among the best examples of German literature.  At the head of the list for most people is Hamlet.  In the English-speaking world we even produced a Disney spin-off in The Lion King.  It has been translated into 75 languages, including Klingon.  It remains one of the most frequently performed plays ever.

But just because we have lionized it (pardon me – I couldn’t resist), it doesn’t mean it’s instantly accessible.  Shakespeare introduced a couple thousand words into the English language and many of his choices are obscure indeed.  (How many people can tell you what the “proud man’s contumely” is, actually?)

I came across the German Shakespeare back in the 60s, while studying in Germany, and recognized the obvious fact that 19th Century German was a lot more accessible than 17th Century English and used the German translation as a key to understanding the original Elizabethan text.  To this day, I cannot hear “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!" without the automatic translator clicking on in my head and producing “O schmölze doch dies allzu feste Fleisch, Zerging und löst’ in einen Tau sich auf!”

I wasn’t ready for the opening.  The curtain goes up, and there sits Prince Hamlet.  With his record player playing Nat King Cole singing Nature Boy – “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…”  Took me a moment to get into it.  But only a moment.  I knew this was going to be good.  Cumberbatch was not the only one up for a challenge.  So too, apparently, was Sonia Friedman Productions.

It was well into the first act, after both the “Too too solid flesh” and the “To be or not to be” soliloquies before I was fully into the play itself and not distracted by the fact that this was Sherlock Holmes at the table under the biggest chandelier I’ve ever seen on stage. 

I had taken a long time to warm to Cumberbatch.  The upstart (Sherlock really belongs to Basil Rathbone) was doing it again.  Hard to get my head around just who this tall, sprightly, energetic and eccentric yet attractive actor was all about. I was about to watch the man I think of as Sherlock Holmes strut his stuff on the English stage.  Cumerbund Bandersnatch, I called him there for a while before he became a household name.  I note that others have struggled with his name, as well.  Cumberbatch has a good sense of humor about it.  “Sounds like a fart in a bathtub” he admits.  What’s the worst you’ve had your name twisted, one talk show host asked him.   “Bendy dick come on my back.”

He has a huge following.  His fans call themselves “Benedict Cumberbitches.”

OK, enough of that.  The question in my mind was is this young man I am getting to know as a popular film and television actor up to the job?  I liked him as Sherlock, eventually.  Really like him as Turing.   Star Trek, Hobbit, the voice of Severus Snape in the Simpson’s takeoff on Harry Potter.  What would he do with this role?  And what was to come, I wondered, from the coming together of all these seeming incongruities?   I don’t remember ever having waited for the curtain to rise with more anticipation.

I’ll cut to the chase.  He had me with “too too solid flesh.”  And he tied it up with “to be or not to be.”  By the time he was calling his mother a whore, I was a convert.  This guy, I said to myself, is going on the shelf with Laurence Olivier.

Many disagree, I noted the next day when I began reading reviews.  Michael Billington of The Guardian, for example, called it a “ragbag of a production by Lyndsay Turner…full of half-baked ideas.”  Paul Taylor of The Independent compares him unfavorably to Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale.  Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph called it a “middling three-star show,” although he gave Cumberbatch’s performance five stars. 

Fortunately, not everybody agrees with these sourpusses.  Cumberbatch was nominated for an Olivier Award for this performance at the Barbican Center.   So was Es Devlin for the set design.  Awards will be given  the first week of April at the Royal Opera House, so stay tuned on that front.   Cumberbatch won the What’sOnStage award for best actor for this performance and the previous year he was included in The Sunday Times in the "100 Makers of the 21st Century," and cited as this generation's Laurence Olivier (Seriously  Somebody was bound to make that claim.)

Ciarán Hinds, who played Claudius, was also nominated for best-supporting actor, by the way, but did not win.

What’s the matter with people?  What was for me the glory of the performance, the magnificent expansive staging, Henry Hitchins of The Evening Standard found to have “overwhelm(ed) the play’s psychological studies…”

Balderdash.  Poppycock.  Bunkum.  Tommyrot.

This performance, we’re told, was the “fastest selling show in London theater history.”  Obviously somebody liked it! 

For those who don’t know it, or need a refresher, here’s the plot.

William Gorman Wills'
Laertes and his sister Ophelia
Claudius is the King in Denmark.  He got this job by murdering his brother, King Hamlet, the rightful king of Denmark.  Gertrude, King Hamlet’s wife then marries Claudius less than two months after the death of her husband, thereby enraging her son, Prince Hamlet, who is nearly driven mad when his father’s ghost appears to him and tells him of the dastardly deed.  He goes off half-cocked, pretending to be mad and driving his girlfriend, Ophelia, into actual madness.  Ophelia eventually drowns herself.  Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, had warned Ophelia early on to be careful about this guy Hamlet before going off to France. Ophelia and Laertes’ father, big bag of wind Polonius, is King Claudius’s advisor.  After stumbling about trying to drum up the courage to off the king to avenge his father’s death, Prince Hamlet finally finds that courage when confronting his mother over being so quick to hop into the sheets with her husband’s killer. Thinking it’s Claudius hiding behind the drapes in his mother’s room, he runs his sword through the drapes without bothering to check, only to find he has killed Polonius, instead.  Laertes then gets a mob together to avenge his father’s and his sister’s deaths, blaming Claudius, for some reason, and returns to Denmark from France.  Claudius persuades Laertes it was Prince Hamlet, not he, who was responsible for the two deaths in the family (and he’s right, please note), and arranges a sword fight in which Laertes is given a sword with a poisoned tip.  In case this doesn’t work, Claudius has a back-up plan.  He drops some poison into a cup of wine which he plans to hand Hamlet when he stops for a drink.  The plan works.  The poison sword does Hamlet in.  Problem is, before Hamlet dies the swords get switched and Laertes gets a cut from his own poisoned sword and dies as well.  Meanwhile, not knowing the chalice contains poisoned wine, Gertrude picks it up and drinks it.  She then drops dead.  Before Laertes’ last gasp, he manages to tell Hamlet it was Claudius who plotted all this, finally giving Hamlet enough stuff to overcome all his reservations about killing the king. 

“Exeunt, bearing off the dead bodies,” runs the final stage direction.  Couldn’t ask for a more perfect operatic ending.

Taku, my Japanese husband, and I sat separately, fortunately, so I wasn’t affected by his reservations about the performance.  He’s the guy, some of you may remember, who when I first took him to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman some years ago (could that possibly be nineteen years ago already?) had no sympathy whatsoever for the plight of the sailor cursed to roam the earth.  Taku focused instead on Senta, the woman destined to save the Dutchman from the curse.  Words like “patriarchy” and “erotophobic” flew through the air.  Taku was a women’s studies major.  Wasn’t about to waste time with crap like suspension of disbelief. 

More recently, we went through this again when I tried to get tickets for the New York Met’s simulcast broadcast of Madame Butterfly.   I tear up at every performance, even though I’ve must have seen it over a dozen times by now.  For Taku, though, Butterfly is all about the imperialist American who comes in and commits statutory rape on a vulnerable Japanese teenager.  He just won’t watch.  Un bel di  – one fine day (my prince will return) – you say?  Give me a break!

With this performance of Hamlet, all he saw was Sherlock Holmes ranting and carrying on hysterically, messing up royally (pun intended), and dying in the end.  Sure, you can sense there is something more going on with the language here, but when you understand only 10% (his assessment, not mine) of it, it’s hard to get carried away.  He’s come a long way, though, and admitted, not even grudgingly, that this was a pretty impressive performance by Sherlock Holmes.

Because Hamlet’s glory consists in large part of his 1500 lines, including five stunning soliloquies, one might be tempted to overlook or downplay the other characters.  But Cumberbatch’s performance is by no means the only one worth mentioning.  And here again, the performance is worth noting on several levels at once.  The actors are superb.  And I’ve already mentioned the staging.  And so is the political statement made, admit it or not, by the fact that the National Theatre greats have gone considerably beyond a whites-only Britain.  Laertes is a black man playing off a white Polonius as his father as well as a white sister.  There is no attempt to make physical appearance match audience expectations, as when you make up Bill Murray to look like FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson or Daniel Day-Lewis to look like Lincoln, say.   Somebody has clearly decided removing the barriers for non-whites in theatre was a higher priority than what we now sometimes refer to as “optics.”   

And then once we stop worrying about the racial anachronism, we’re free to cast Leo Bill as Horatio.  Bill is covered with tattoos, including the name Cazale on his right forearm.  Cazale the American actor (Deerhunter, Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon) and partner of Meryl Streep who died at 42, was a hero to Bill.  Nullo Problemo.  He’s got the acting chops; he got the job.

And on it goes.  Claudius is played by Irish-catholic Ciarán Hinds from Belfast who worked for years in Glasgow.  Voltemand, the ambassador to Norway (no trivial job – Denmark, remember, is at war with Norway) is played by Scottish actress Morag Siller, a woman playing a real woman.  The politics and prejudices of yesteryear have clearly been cast aside.  The effect this brave new world has on an audience is quite satisfying.  What might be “incongruities” are assumed to be trivial, and possibly a means of connecting the turmoil on the stage with the reality of life outside the theater.  The play's the thing, evidently.

Sarah Bernhard's "Alas, poor Yorick"
As I watched, my head filled with questions and with details I had overlooked before.  Like the fact that Hamlet’s father’s name was also Hamlet – King Hamlet, as opposed to Prince Hamlet.  And that the tragedy of Ophelia’s madness was compounded by the fact that the priest (he’s a catholic priest in the First Folio of Hamlet and a “doct,” or Doctor of Divinity, a Protestant, in the Second Folio, for some reason) refuses to give Ophelia a full Christian burial.  Because she committed suicide.  And my interest continued well into the next day when I got online to learn such things as that they’re making 100 seats available for every performance at £10.  And that along with the many great performances by the likes of Steven Dillane, Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance, Roy  Kinnear, Sam West, Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings, and the Japanese actor Tatsuya Fujiwara, Hamlet has quite often been performed by women, most recently Maxine Peake, but by no less than Sarah Bernhardt and Frances de la Tour, as well.  

In one interview with Bandersnatch he mentions that in preparing for the role he toyed with the notion that it’s possible Gertrude’s relationship with King Hamlet was not all that satisfying for her, that it may have been an arranged marriage, or that after the shock of his death she simply found a way to move on, like Jackie Kennedy did when marrying Onassis, and squeezing out whatever of life’s possibilities may remain.  That the son’s rage at his mother misses this and is simply an indication of their alienation from each other.  That question gets resolved, actually, in the confrontation later on between Hamlet and his mother when she reveals how unsatisfying her present marriage is compared with her former marriage.  But the thought was allowed to fester, at least for a time, and gives us a look at how an actor readies himself for the task of loathing his mother and understanding her all the while.

There are so many theatrical contrivances – staging a play within the play “to catch the conscience of the king."  And Hamlet's being exiled to England but then being captured by (no kidding) pirates, which good luck enables him to return to Denmark and complete his life mission to kill his uncle.

I recognized Ciarán Hinds, the Irish actor playing Claudius.  No surprise, since he has 60 films to his credit as well as roles in 36 television productions.  I checked when I got home, and realized it was probably his role as Aberforth Dumbledore in Harry Potter that rang the bell.

So much going on behind the scenes.  Have a look, for example at an interview with the Ghanaian born actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who plays Laertes.   A list of Cumberbatch's accomplishments is available here.

A brief aside: I am reminded of the time I went with a Greek student of mine to see the Franco Zeffirelli film version of Romeo and Juliet.  He raved and raved.  Years later I ran into him and he mentioned it was that film that led him to believe Shakespeare was a genius and worth the effort of reading.  And that led me to the filmed versions of Hamlet.  Not just the black and white Laurence Olivier number, but also more recent versions by Zeffirelli (1990) and Kenneth Branagh (1996),  and the reworked Michael Almereyda version (2000), starring Ethan Hawke. And, more recently, the Kenneth Branagh version of Winter's Tale with Judi Dench.

As the play goes on, over and over again you are hit with familiar lines and phrases.  Just how many there are is astonishing, in fact. 

  • Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…
  • what a rogue and peasant slave am I…
  • …when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…
  • the mind’s eye
  • the primrose path
  • murder most foul
  • brevity is the soul of wit
  • what a piece of work is man
  • methinks the lady doth protest too much
  • There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.
  • Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

As the wit sitting behind me commented to his wife during intermission, “This whole thing is just one cliché after another!”

If you live in the East Bay, it’s showing at the Rialto Cinemas – there’s one in Elmwood and one in El Cerrito.  There will be additional presentations on Thursday, April 21 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. and on Tuesday, April 26, also at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.  Pick a theatre with comfortable seats:  Running time is 3 hours and 20 minutes, including a 20-minute interval.

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