Theatre Review: ‘Hamlet’ by National Theatre Live (2015)

Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Produced by Sonia Friedman Productions

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Anastasia Hille, Siân Brooke, Jim Norton, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

National Theatre Live Broadcast from the Barbican Theatre, London

15th October 2015

Review by Miriam Atkinson

On the 15th October 2015 National Theatre Live broadcasted their latest production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to cinemas around the country.

Considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, there have been many adaptations of Hamlet over the years. This latest production, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, needed to find its identity and stand out from previous adaptations and I certainly felt it delivered.

First of all the set was absolutely spectacular. Making full use of the huge stage at the Barbican Theatre the designers built a dual level grand hall that would have looked at home on a film set. I was most impressed by all of the extra details that had been included. For example the areas behind the hall doors were as heavily furnished as the main set even though no scenes take play in those areas. Another little detail is that all the letters and papers used in the play had writing on them instead of being left blank. These little touches really added to the play’s realism. In Hamlet’s darker second act the floor of the hall was hidden under mountains of rubble in a powerful visual metaphor for the crumbling state of both Hamlet’s family and the kingdom.

It was clear that Cumberbatch completely threw himself into the role of Hamlet and he fully inhabited the character for those three hours. The performances by the other cast members were equally as good. Ciarán Hinds commanded the authority needed to play the ruler Claudius, Anastasia Hille wonderfully showed the inner turmoil of Gertrude, and Jim Norton’s surprisingly comedic additions to concerned father Polonius were highly enjoyable. My only slight criticism was that Siân Brooke portrayed Ophelia as unstable throughout the play so the character’s gradual descent into madness (as found in the text) was somewhat lost. However upon entering Act 2 when Ophelia is broken by grief, Brooke provided some beautifully heart-breaking moments as this lost girl.

Every adaptation is different and the audience was treated to some brilliant moments of interpretation. During Hamlet’s soliloquies, instead of leaving Cumberbatch alone on an empty stage, the lights dimmed and all of the actors in the background moved in slow motion while Hamlet’s speech took the focus in the foreground. Stage productions are also defined by how they use the silent space between the dialogues. In this case many had a comedic purpose. A definite highlight was seeing Cumberbatch dressed as a toy soldier playing in a human-size toy castle when Hamlet feigns madness.

Yet Hamlet is a play about tragedy and war, loyalty and betrayal and these themes were threaded throughout the play and represented through the characters’ costumes. For important occasions the dignitaries wore old formal military jackets decorated with medals and ribbons while for day-to-day wear the older characters wore early 20th century clothing – a WWI reference perhaps? It also gives new meaning to the toy soldier scene where Hamlet plays at war while a real war happens around him. The younger characters only appear in modern 21th Century clothing as an obvious contrast to everything around them. Yet for me this costume choice says that the messages within Shakespeare’s plays still resonate today and war and conflict are still clearly felt in the world today.

This review was originally published in the online magazine Cuckoo Review in October 2015

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