Hamlet: Tragic, Funny and Devastatingly Human

*Spoilers of the production may be included*

For a limited time only the sell-out 2015 Barbican production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Dane will be screened at cinemas across the UK, including (for any still resting on their laurels when it comes to making the most of student discount) the Tyneside cinema in Newcastle. Directed by Lyndsey Turner and with a sweeping set design from Es Delvin, the whole production was outstanding – far exceeding my ill-founded scepticism that a lot of its success derived from the Academy Award winning actor in the front seat.

All cast members bore their roles with fortitude, with the exception of Claudius, who lacked the steeliness and sensuality required in a man willing to murder his brother to sleep with his wife. Ciarán Hinds was more prone to putting his hands in his corduroy trouser pockets and exhaling bemusedly every time Hamlet had a dinner table outburst – not the tyrant capable of driving Elsinore to the ground or seducing the beautiful Gertrude. His standout performance was in Act 3 Scene 3, where he delivered the redemption soliloquy with just the right amount of bitterness to con us into believing his guilt – before rather ruining it all with his deliverance of those last lines:  “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:/ Words without thoughts never to heaven go”, with all the gleefulness of a man telling his wife he subscribed to Amazon Prime instead of reviewing the online tax insurance policy. As a slightly inept King he fit the role – as a foreboding, malevolent murderer he was too bland.  

Gertrude, however, was a different matter entirely, with Anastasia Hille giving a star turn from the aloof ice queen hostess in crystal headdress at her wedding (a sumptuous affair back dropped by a staircase and balcony overlooking a long table) to the weeping, fragile Mother figure who begs her son for forgiveness in Act 4. While many productions emphasise an oedipal complex, in this a more pedagogic display worked magnificently, with the roles reversing from her frantically calling in his university friends to sort him out in his grief, to him earnestly assuring her that salvation is possible after her breakdown. 

Both had something to learn from each other, and her maternal nature was highlighted even further through her interaction with the fidgety Ophelia (Sian Brooke), whose descent into madness was both heart-breaking and believable. Too often the switch from sanity to suicide is abrupt, but here strains were evident even from the very onset, when she picked her fingers manically after her Father ordered her away from her piano (played on by both her and Laertes in a touching duet).

The explosion that resulted in earth being blown across the stage to cover the opulent ballroom was a visceral reminder (if not an obvious one) of the rapidly approaching invasion from Fortinbras. When Ophelia exited the stage for the last time it was staggering up a mountain of earth and debris, her pitiful departure marked by no one except the audience, a painful reminder of the isolating nature of mental illness. The artistic decision to make her a still life photographer was a telling reminder of the role media has in exacerbating the problem – when Gertrude finds a suitcase full of all Ophelia’s black and white photographs she is visibly shocked – begging the question of whether anyone (apart from her brother) really knew Ophelia at all.

Symbolism pervades the play, from Hamlet’s seating at the centre of a long table before his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, in what appears to be a tableaux of da Vinchi’s the Last Supper, to the giant toy soldiers surrounding his toy fort alluding to the constant surveillance that goes on within a corrupt military state. Touching too was the decision to dress Horatio like a grungy student, with a canvas rucksack, beanie and tattoos – making his return from Wittenberg to check on Hamlet a reminder of the strength of the bonds formed in your time at university.

This was a production that, although mildly weak in some areas (Claudius’s casting and the rearrangement of some lines, with Ophelia being given Hamlet’s for seemingly no apparent reason) gave us an overwhelming reminder of why Hamlet is one of the most widely reproduced of all Shakespeare’s plays – it is tragic, funny, and above all, devastatingly human.

Featured image by Marcos C., available under Non-commercial-NoDervis 2.0 licence

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