As part of the National Theatre Live initiative – London-based stage performances transmitted in glossy 2-dimensions round the globe – today I watched Benedict Cumberbatch at the ‘Cinema Farnese’ in Rome, having blagged a Shakespeare prof-reduced ticket. I was genuinely delighted to be joined by 2 students from John Cabot University’s Lit Soc. Otherwise, for those who know me, imagine Daniel sitting on his own through ‘Hamlet’ with nobody to talk to.
Not being one who says ‘yum’ when hearing Benedict’s name, I was more in it for the play I love filmed in a theatre and up onto a fine wide screen. Living in China and Italy for the past 8 years, I have seen precious little UK productions. This is fine, because it helps my thinking resist trends, but it is also frustrating, because it is part of my lifeblood.
So, by measure of giving that blood a little pump down here in Rome, I share my thoughts below.
‘Daniel’s 17 top random in-no-particular-order thoughts on the Cumberbatch ‘Hamlet’, as viewed over three hours in a darkened cinema on a beautiful sunny Roman afternoon.’
1. Smart to start with Hamlet there on stage, otherwise the first 200 lines would be pointless to the yearnful recording it on their phones. No waiting until the 1.2 banquet scene to see Hamlet standing off to one side looking miserable. We have a star, it’s not the ghost, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, here he is, listening to ‘Nature Boy’ – work it out yourself, then tell me – on the kind of record player I’ve owned.
2. Not surprising that to get people into the theatre to see a TV and film star you need to make a filmic play: the scope and richness of the set, the explosions, the sentimental music, Spielberg’s Ophelia surmounting a verge of ashes to die in the direction of the light which made me want to knife myself.
3. Claudius was more of a peacemaker than a villain. I like a bit more nasty in my nice. I didn’t feel much tension between him and Hamlet, primarily because of Hines’ laconic reactions. He wasn’t particularly sexy either, not a lot between him and Gertrude, except for one notable slo-mo snog during the first time-slowed-down soliloquy, ‘Too, too solid flesh…’
4. …which were a clever way of dealing with the necessary narrative dualities inherent in delivering soliloquies.
5. For me, there’s been Hamlet, Hamlet after my dad died, and Hamlet after I became a father. The fathers in this production were horrible fathers. I want tenderness from the ghost, the sense that he has lost a son; like the tactile Sam Shepherd’s in Michael Amlereyda’s Hamlet (2000).
6. I thought Nunnery was excellent, as good as I’ve seen. His toy soldier was also the shit, Victorian Duracell Bunny. Shame it was the only time Hamlet got to run the castle and it wasn’t a real one, but I was chortling nonetheless.
7. Likewise, ‘Rogue and Peasant Slave’. Quality. ‘To be…’ dragged on for me; for the first time, viewing star-laced pro theatre, it felt overlong, even when cut.
8. Cumberbatch’s performance as a whole was strong, his mind-quakes believable, a weepy Hamlet with a scratchily-nervous Ophelia, the awesome Calvin Klein ‘will he won’t he take his shirt off’ moment, some full-on shouting when Hamlet got back from England. He bossed it when he needed to but not overly. I never doubted he was a prince.
9. I liked how unfussy 5.2 was, death understated; no Olivier rolling down the staircase. Just get on and die.
10. Loved Gertrude’s delicate English maternal sweat-wiping of her boy during the swordfight. I’m laughing in recognition, which is the best thing to do with death round the corner. Anastasia Hill was really solid all round.
11. The ash explosion – again, upping the theatrical stakes for film goers, worked well for me in that it woke me up from my perennial 20-minute doze about 100 minutes into any Shakespeare play. I’m in a darkened room, there is soft light, and I have been lulled by metrical language. Like being 7 again, when I nodded off regularly under these conditions.
12. Horatio didn’t take his backpack off until Act 4. WTF? Plus zero empathic relationship with his mate. Dodgy tattoos as well.
13. I enjoyed how the acting troupe turned up as, well, you know, actors, unruly hair, lounging against the wall in odd-fitting leather jackets, hoodies and jeans. We know there’s no real glamour in this game.
14. My favourite was the curly-haired Rosencrantz. Great comedic timing, face. One man-show material.
15. I don’t know when it was filmed. Hamlet wore a Bowie T-Shirt, though I can’t say whether serendipitously or commemoratively. If the latter, and budget allowing, I now want to see him do it again in a Prince T-shirt.
16. In the dying embers of the play, I’d have had Young Fortinbras channel a lot more Christoph Waltz.
17. It was weird clapping in a cinema watching people clapping in a theatre. Did my head in.