Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Horatio's Backpack - The National Theater's Production o Hamlet

The new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the National Theater in London's Barbican is a different kind of Hamlet. I was pleased to attend the NT Live event at a local movie theater of the production.  Since many of us will never get to see theses shows, the high definition broadcast of a single production is actually a treat.

So what's different about this Hamlet? It is the theme through staging.  Olivier played up the oedipal side of the Hamlet story and cut all the political stuff.  Mel Gibson played the zaniest or most antic and possibly the worst Hamlet on film.  Derek Jacobi's Hamlet was one that actually seemed like the son of a warrior king. Unfortunately, the filming of his version makes it, to say the least, boring to watch. Kenneth Branagh brought the uncut and more serious version of Hamlet to film. His was grand in scope and occasionally over-acted with a strong supporting cast.  David Tennant's Dane mines the humor that is in the play. Ethan Hawke's is a sort of lost or even slacker Hamlet.  What is Cumberbatch's Hamlet? He is one of generational nature.  It is perhaps the way the play has been reordered slightly and cut to reflect a more political and war-like nature by director Lyndsey Turner that makes Benedict's character of Hamlet less human and more of a Millennial sort of Hamlet.  At three hours long, this Hamlet in its cutting falls closer to the complete text than the radically butchered version with Mel Gibson.

The wonder of this version is that it tends to be more statement.  The 39-year-old Cumberbatch's Hamlet is one that really tries to throw the facets of the character almost in a juggler like fashion. It has been said that no actor can hit all the dimensions of Hamlet as a character and so perhaps to the detriment of Cumberbatch's skill, the director's vision becomes a statement of Hamlet as generational representative trying to be all things. His "antic disposition" finds the wonder and humor of Shakespeare's gifted use of double entendre and puns.  The humor is a potent element.  Just as quickly, Hamlet drops the madness to show the depths of pain and despair he feels at his father's murder.  By the time the play-within-the-play rolls around, Hamlet becomes the conglomeration of these facets.  His costume has shifted from the classic Hamlet in black that begins the play to a combination of clothes from Adidas tennis shoes, a drummer's red coat under which shows a Ziggy Stardust tee.  He is a representative of having no real place in this era to call his own and being a self-absorbed member or the generation he symbolizes. He finds no real direction until his confrontation with the Fortinbras army and his realization that while he has done nothing to change his circumstance, 20,000 men are prepared to die for no reason. It is from this point that Hamlet understands that he must make a change.  He must become involved.
When next we see Hamlet, gone are the affectations of his wild costume and now he appears in a simple costume of a merchant sailor.  When last he faces his battle with the treacherous and misled Laertes, he wears a sparkling white fencing coat with glove opposed to the black costumes of Laertes and Claudius.  In short he is the hero his generation must become if change is to come.

I would have liked to felt more for the characters but the symbolic use of costume and set occasionally got in the way.  An example would have to be Horatio's backpack.  Every time Horatio (Leo Bill) is on stage, he wears a large knapsack and for apparently no reason.  When he arrives at the castle, he wears the backpack.  When they go to see the ghost, there is Horatio and his backpack.  When he watches the play-within-the-play, he wears his backpack.  The only time that Horatio is not wearing his pack is at the end when he puts it down during the duel. I am still not sure what the point of the pack was. Horatio is also covered in visible tattoos.  I am also unsure if they are a statement to link Horatio to the current fad or if Leo Bill just has a lot of tattoos.  Bill doesn't have a strong voice or presence to begin with and then to encumber the witness of Hamlet with a backpack and tattoos did no service to the production. 

Another example is as the kingdom of Claudius crumbles the floors are covered in black debris that clings to every actor and costume. It interferes with the performance.  Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, has to deal with it in perhaps her strongest scene.  Ophelia's first soliloquy is extremely labored while her madness scene is strong and moving with great depth.  It would be better though if she weren't covered in the fake black symbols of a crumbling empire.

The performance by Claudius, played by Ciarán Hinds, is a good one. He has just the right amount of smooth-talking slimy villain to make his relationship with Cumberbatch's Hamlet a potent conflict. The casting, overall, was an interesting choice. Karl Johnson who plays the ghost and the grave digger is a fine actor but is a far better grave digger than warrior king.  Laertes really seems to labor with his speeches.  In the defense of some of the speeches appearing labored, it could be because of the closeness of camera to the performer in the "live theater" experience.  

I liked the show.  It moved well and delivery was, for the most part, clean.  While a few of the casting choices were weaker than other actors I've seen in the roles, most of the time, if the set, symbolic nature, and costumes didn't get in the way, the actors worked well on stage.  The line interpretations gave me some insight into meanings that I had not thought of.  It had energy.  So when it comes out on DVD, if it does, give it a shot.  It may not become as iconic as Olivier's Hamlet, but it will give some new perspective.

Now if I could just figure out the reason for Horatio's backpack.