One of the most sophisticated and exquisite of all jazz standards was written by a black, gay, teenage boy over the course of five years in the 1930s. Billy Strayhorn, who later became famously close to his mentor and writing partner Duke Ellington, wrote the majority of the elegantly jaded lyrics, surprising internal rhyming schemes and beautiful, unusual melody that became “Lush Life” when he was just sixteen years old. The song begins:
“I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come-what-may places / Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails. / The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces / With distingué traces / That used to be there, you could see where / They’d been washed away / By too many through the day / Twelve o’clocktails.”
Since I learned that Benedict Cumberbatch would play the title role in Britain’s National Theatre production of Hamlet this autumn, I’ve sought a way to justify another trip to London to see him on the stage. Happily, this week I was able to do the next best thing: I attended a special video presentation beamed from the Barbican Theatre in London to 1,400 sites around the world. The production wasn’t strictly live—I saw it delayed by a few hours to accommodate the time difference between London and Seattle—but it was exciting to know that it was a very fresh and special event.
The National Theatre’s staging of Shakespeare’s most popular play been a hugely successful one thanks to the justified popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch, who attained superstar status for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s exceptional Sherlock series, shown in the US as part of PBS’s Mystery series. This week’s initial showing of Hamlet in cinemas around the world drew the largest global audience for a live broadcast day of any title in National Theatre Live history; more than 225,000 people around the world saw the production in cinemas on the first day. More showings had already been scheduled in cinemas over the coming two weeks, but the first showing was so extraordinarily popular that more cinema presentations will be added during November.
I quite enjoyed the production, which also featured the compelling, charismatic Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones; Julius Caesar in HBO’s ROME; Captain Wentworth in the splendid 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion) as Hamlet’s uncle/step-father, Claudius. The video created and shared around the world this past week will be repeated in several Seattle cinemas over the next two weeks as well as in other locations around the world, so if you don’t mind sitting for 3-1/2 hours (including a 20-minute intermission) in a cinema, this is a beautiful production, well filmed.
There are quirks in this production that are entertaining or interesting to watch, but can be distracting in their oddness. Benedict Cumberbatch dressed like a soldier and playing at being at war in his oversized dollhouse flanked by giant toy soldiers is an unexpectedly lighthearted moment, and is fun to watch. Yet it is strange, and it feels not only out of character but like a maneuver meant to distance the audience from the action—this production has many anachronisms and bits of folderol meant to throw the audience off guard and to play up the staginess of the production instead of allowing us to enter Hamlet’s world and even his head, as productions of this play tend to do. It is the most introspective of Shakespeare’s plays, so to play it in a way that constantly underlines its very falseness and inauthenticity is at odds with the desires of the productions we are used to. But being shaken out of our complacency and surprised by theatrical antics is one of the things that live theater does best, so there is room for a production of this old chestnut that leaves us a bit confused and off-center. Hamlet is himself imbued with many awkward and uncomfortable traits, after all, so it makes some sense that his story should be similarly discomforting and confusing.
When Hamlet’s murderous step-father, Claudius, connives and justifies planning Hamlet’s destruction in Act IV, windows and doors blow in and the entire set becomes covered in what look like black flecks of decay, or leaves, or even shredded tires—who can say? There is no explanation, and the black bits overtake Hamlet’s world and remain on the stage for the rest of the play, in every setting, inside and out, with only small sections of stage swept clean at various points during the ensuing drama to create pathways or patches of light.
As the production wound down, Cumberbatch arose from the ground for his curtain call, bits of the mysterious dark schmutz still clinging to his face, neck and clothes. Did the particles symbolize doom, or Claudius’s corruption (and perhaps Hamlet’s, since he takes an innocent life and leads others toward death), or general decay? Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, but what exactly it is that overtakes the land is not clear.
Of all the strange and original conceits incorporated into this production, the willful and inconsistently applied anachronisms are the most noticeable and, to me, off-putting. Shakespeare’s plays are often adapted to take place in other time periods than the Elizabethan era, and such variations can be very effective. My favorite case in point is the excellent film adaptation of Richard III starring a stunningly malevolent Ian McKellen which took place in an alternate version of 1930s Britain overseen by fascist dictatorial rulers. In that case, setting the story in a historical period which is so recent and freighted with so much fascistic horror and menace made it feel particularly vivid, real and emotionally accessible.
This version of Hamlet is the first Shakespearean production I have seen that sticks to no particular time period but instead chooses to be willfully and inconsistently anachronistic, beginning with Hamlet listening to Nat King Cole’s haunting “Nature Boy” (which was recorded in 1948) on a record player in what seems to be the late 1940s or early 1950s. Hamlet is greeted by a modern hipster version of Horatio, complete with backpack, pegged jeans and body-covering tattoos; his clothes and glasses seem like they could possibly be contemporary with the Nat King Cole music, but the backpack and tattoos take him to the modern realm. Ophelia in her slouchy sweatshirts and high-waisted pants seems to be dressing in clothes from the 1980s or 1990s, while Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and her new husband (and former brother-in-law) Claudius are clothed in garb contemporary with the song by which Hamlet is captivated (and the strains of which return repeatedly during the production, acting almost as a theme song). The acting troupe to whom Hamlet gives acting lessons are dressed in 1970s gear, and Hamlet himself is often in more timeless, neutral clothing, except for his David Bowie “Aladdin Sane” T-shirt and a handpainted punk overcoat.
The anachronisms delighted my daughter, who felt they underscored the timelessness of the story and emphasized the point that Hamlet as we have come to know him is a man out of time. I see her point, yet I found that the anachronisms often jarred me out of being able to suspend my disbelief, which is something I crave in theatrical experiences, so I found it less immersive than I would have liked. Aside from that, however, I found Cumberbatch very skilled at making me feel that he was in the moment and experiencing life as Hamlet, and the sets, direction and music were very effective.
If you enjoy Cumberbatch, Hines or Hamlet, this is a worthy and thought-provoking production.