The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #76: National Theatre Live: Hamlet

75. Robin Lough’s National Theatre Live: Hamlet (2015)

My recent thesis, that successful stage productions should just be filmed rather than adapted for a purely cinematic version, isn’t being born out as well as I had hoped, even if The National Theatre Live’s 2015 version of Hamlet sparkles with greatness.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,

“If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not,” the ghost of Hamlet’s father will implore him. The play has so much to do with this Cartesian split of the mind and the body, the spirit and nature, which is why it is notable that The National Theatre’s filmed stage production of the tragedy begins with Benedict Cumberbatch, as the Danish prince, listening to a record of the slightly obscure jazz standard, “Nature Boy.”

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.

That Hamlet would obsess over this song is intriguing, framing the play with a mid-twentieth century sense of existential charm. One implication of the lyrics is this Byronic wanderer is encouraging the listener to fall in love, but not with him. But the lyrics also hint at the cruelty of love, how to love someone who will love you in return is a rather difficult thing. Hamlet has to wonder if his mother actually even loved his father, considering how quickly she took up with Claudius after her husband under mysterious circumstances (those damned serpents of Denmark).

And Hamlet must be wondering if Ophelia—whose affections seemgenuine, whose love helps to create his character—can love him any better than his mother.

The melody is haunting, too.

NTLive Hamlet 6

Another nice touch is how director Robin Lough re-arranged the text to de-familiarize us with the most often performed play in the world.

“Who’s there?” asks Hamlet into the darkness, as if ready to be haunted by his father. (The line textually belongs to Bernardo, of the night watch.) After a curdling silence, Horatio (Leo Bill) enters the room (instead of Francisco).

Despite this re-arranging, this production is something close to the whole Hamlet, which means that there is an awful lot to try to de-familiarize us with. The solution to that problem—how long will viewers need to keep their asses in their seats—seems to have been to speed up the performances. The royal court of Denmark is a bit manic, though with Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciarán Hinds (as Claudius), the effect isn’t all bad. But sometimes one wonders whether the ideal audience of this production might be a flock of hummingbirds.

NTLive Hamlet 7

This production’s Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, is a bit older. Her bangs made her face seem so vulnerable, no place to hide. When she appears mad, a bald patch mars her head.

The textual nature of Ophelia’s love, trying to write her reality around the margins of acceptable speech, gets woven into the play. When Hamlet is berating her, Ophelia attempts to write him a note, to warn him, but he is too self-absorbed to notice. In a scene change, her privacy is violated when Polonius sends a servant to search her letters for something of Hamlet’s to share with the king. When she goes mad, she recites his love letter to her amongst the garbled songs.

NTLive Hamlet 5

The set design of the Barbican Theater is amongst the best I’ve ever seen, almost operatic, but not quite overblown. After the intermission, there is dirt strewn across the floor of this palace chamber, as if Ophelia’s grave belonged to all of Denmark.

Scene changes feature slow, spooky music with sped up action that includes changes to the set as well as dumb shows that deepen the story (as in Polonius stealing Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia).

The sound engineering of the play is also extraordinary, part posh luxurious romanticism, part David Lynch nightmare. The recording is pristine, making one feel like one is sitting in the Barbican Theater, which despite this psilocybin I took probably wasn’t the case.

NTLive Hamlet 3

I am not sure I have ever seen a Hamlet with quite so many original, surprising, and smart interpretations of the text, and Benedict Cumberbatch is Benedict Cumberbatch. And yet I cannot quite elude the feeling that this version falls short of its exquisite promise—too much rushing the text, which makes Cumberbatch explode like champagne. It’s good stuff, but too good to be drunk quickly.


John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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