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
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
It’s never just the story of a
troubled soul; it’s always inevitably a celebration of the richness of the
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
with John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier shows real courage, I
In my view Cumberbatch did
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
At the head of the list for most people is Hamlet.
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
(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
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
With his record player playing Nat
King Cole singing Nature Boy
was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…”
Took me a moment to get into it. But only a moment.
this was going to be good.
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.
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
“Sounds like a fart in a bathtub” he
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
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.
, I noted the next day when I began reading
Michael Billington of The Guardian,
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
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
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
play’s psychological studies…”
Poppycock. Bunkum. Tommyrot.
This performance, we’re told
, was the “fastest selling show
in London theater history.”
somebody liked it!
For those who don’t know it, or need a refresher, here’s the
|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
He goes off half-cocked,
pretending to be mad and driving his girlfriend, Ophelia, into actual
Ophelia eventually drowns
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
For Taku, though, Butterfly
is all about the imperialist
American who comes in and commits statutory rape on a vulnerable Japanese
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
glory consists in large part of his 1500
lines, including five stunning soliloquies, one might be tempted to overlook or
downplay the other characters.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
- …when we have shuffled off this
- 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
- 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.