Courtesy of Johan Persson

November 11, 2015

Blue Burdens and Hipster Horatio in Hamlet

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Director Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet surprised me a bit at the start with Benedict Cumberbatch, our Hamlet, wrapped in a loose brown sweater, sitting on the ground listening to vinyl. This production’s intro (as shown at Cinemapolis) is not the beginning that I am familiar with. While Hamlet broods, someone knocks on the door, and it’s Hamlet (not Bernardo) who shouts, “Who’s there!” — only, instead of his father’s ghost, it’s Horatio (Leo Bill), clad in a button-up and square-rimmed glasses, a knapsack and tattoos. I don’t know if I like the re-arrangement of the script, but as Hamlet and Horatio exchange words, the premise is set regardless and the anachronistic nature of the outfits tickles my fancy.

Courtesy of Johan Persson

Courtesy of Johan Persson

It becomes clear rather rapidly that Cumberbatch plays an incredible Hamlet — charismatic, unflinching and dynamic, he prances around the stage with limber movements. Cumberbatch performs relentlessly, giving flesh to instances in the production that could have been over-the-top, like when he’s dressed in a red soldier’s suit, beating the drum of fabricated insanity.

Despite this boldness and strength, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is less insane about getting revenge than about having to actually do it. The obvious indication is the outfits, which are a fantastic, childish mess. Training pants and tailcoats smeared with ‘KING’ — a mismatch of this and that — are the physical representation of Hamlet’s contradictory character in a way: He wants revenge but doesn’t want to kill; he kills despite his reservations but doesn’t display much remorse; he wants to be kind to his mother but ruthlessly harps at her. Torn between filially becoming a murderer for revenge to fulfill his responsibilities as a son and his intellectual rejection of becoming a murderer, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is struggling to grow up and take on a ‘duty.’

The production seemed to this point. When Hamlet crawls into his play castle as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk in, one can see a jarring sense of lost childhood, because all ‘play’ is falsified and instead perceived as insanity. Hamlet’s childhood home has devolved to a prison of responsibility and horror, and his schoolboy friends work against him. The patchwork of traits and contradictions in Hamlet undoubtedly makes him stand out as the rest of the cast is more constant in nature, though this could arguably speak to a flatter supporting cast. But Hamlet the man has always been a behemoth as a character.

What’s really fantastic is how the progression of the play is reflected in a stunning and aesthetically pleasing set. The deep blue indigo hues that drown the stage, the endless flowers and the decadently beautiful banquet table form an extraordinarily lovely set. There’s an unspeakable momentum expressed in the set of the play, whether it’s the music building the tension, the gorgeous (and eerie) use of large, projected shadows emphasizing movement and solitude or the visual deterioration of the castle and the people in it. Once mighty, the castle ends completely drowned in cracks and ashes and the cast that had started in white are completely dressed in black, with the exception of Hamlet himself who began in black and ends in white.

It is certainly dramatic in a modern way, the visual impact rendering the production cinematic in a way, which critics have cried out about. Settled in front of the screen, I did get the notion that the show came out particularly well on camera for a theatre production — on the screen, one can see the subtle facial changes, details such as Ophelia’s photographs, and the full breadth of the blasting ashes at the end of Act I. The camera’s focus makes the live screening feel more vibrant because the details shine — these probably would not be so easily perceived in person at the Royal National Theatre in London and some question whether the production is truly proper theatre.

Regardless, I found the production to be beautiful in its contemporary elements and its blue glory. The fresh modernity brought a dynamism and intensity I didn’t expect, but I loved it all the same (especially Horatio’s new hipster look). Hamlet’s childishness and pain are strangely easy to empathize with, though the audience isn’t quite in the same dilemma of killing anyone for revenge. Immediately, Hamlet sucks the audience into a crumbling world of indigo-blue through the stage’s presence and the cast’s (especially Cumberbatch’s) lively presentation. It’s a whimsical and fantastic piece to see, with breath-taking visuals and a sheer momentum that gives the viewer a taste of insanity.