Last night, the National Theater’s production of Hamlet has forever changed the way I view not only the play, but the storytelling of Shakespeare.
I’ve studied and taught Shakespeare for twenty years. My signature Shakespeare course has been a summer class that studied the three seasonal Shakespearean plays produced by the Utah Shakespeare Festival. We would study he plays for five weeks, then attend the Festival for a week to see all six plays of the season and to film a contextual news broadcast scripted by the students.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of live Shakespeare, and I’ve been impressed by several performances. But I’ve never been impressed by a performance of Hamlet, and I’ve only once been impressed by a performance on a serious emotional level (Tony Amendola in The Merchant of Venice).
The National Theater’s production left me raw.
The opening scene ripped a hole in my heart. Hamlet (played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch) alone on the stage, flipping through a photo album. A son hiding in a storage room to spend time with his father’s memory. To spend time with his grief when everyone around him insisted that he leave it behind—or not acknowledge it at all. He cried over the photos, but it was when he pulled out his father’s coat and pressed it to his face that my heart engaged in the story.
I knew the play opened with the recent death of the king and the abrupt marriage of the queen. But in other versions—the movies with Gibson and Brannagh and a Festival performance of which I have no lasting impression—Hamlet’s grief took on a manly stoicism, as if bearing “slings and arrows” meant presenting nothing but a desire for revenge behind flat emotional armor. I understand stoicism. I understand building armor over such a gaping emotional wound, but it also created a disconnect between the performance and the audience. I watched and heard Hamlet’s torment, but with this performance I felt his torment.
When Hamlet pressed his father’s coat to his face, I shared in that intimate moment. I shared Hamlet’s terrible, snot-nosed, sobbing, body-wrenching grief. And that continued as Hamlet’s world twisted in on itself. Childlike antics bought him time while he walked the tightrope above an emotional crevasse. These antics did not seem as premeditated as I’ve seen in other performances. Instead, Hamlet’s crazy behavior was a man grasping to hold on to threads of sanity and hope, a genuine in-the-moment struggle.
He marched onto stage and toward the audience on top of a long table. A one man marching band, a drummer and a soldier. When Polonius exited the room, Hamlet collapsed on the table, a man on the verge of giving up. A man questioning why he deserved to live as a coward…whether it would be better to “end the heartache.” And I shared with him the depth of sorrow and hopelessness that makes you want to die.
Hamlet found comfort and love in Ophelia, then she was distanced from him by her brother, Laertes, and father, Polonius. Then, worse, she was used to bait him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were used to bait him and then pressed to deliver him to his death. In the final act, Hamlet suffered the guilt of having abandoned Ophelia even though he had been sent away in handcuffs by King Claudius. He returned to Ophelia’s death, Laertes’ blame and anger over the death of his father and sister, and the same weak-willed mother who failed to protect Hamlet from his sociopathic stepfather.
In the end, I understood Hamlet as I’ve never understood him before. A freshly orphaned son grieving deeply for the father he loved. A man who rejected his lover to protect her, only to suffer her death after abandoning her. A son whose mother married an abusive stepfather. A man whose emotional depth nearly unraveled his soul. A man who in the end sought the only redemption he could by begging Laertes forgiveness as a brother at heart.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet is a phenomenon that will probably never be repeated by the algorithms of the universe. His delivery, his physicality—I never laughed during this play before. Out loud. Cumberbatch made a brilliantly sarcastic, mocking, absolutely tormented Hamlet, and all of it genuine. He cried, he sweated, he pretended to walk down a set of stairs while playing at toy soldier in his little castle. He flipped off King Claudius.
Both Queen Gertrude and Ophelia were portrayed much as I have seen them before. Gertrude was a good performance. While Ophelia was not very original, the actress did a great job with the role.
The set and the costuming both subtly but effectively communicated the timelessness of the story. From a thoroughly tattooed Horatio wearing skinny jeans to the wedding dinner guests in a range of 18th century to contemporary white costumes, the elements spanned time without being a distraction. It was the same with the set and props. A handheld camera and rapiers. A stage that jutted back as a wide hallway that equated to the gates of Hell. A stage floor covered first by a rug and then by mounds of rubble.
And then the final act. After the cast bowed to their applause, Cumberbatch made a plea for the children suffering in Syria.
I never connected to Hamlet before this performance. I never understood the grief and the torment. I had studied and watched, but nothing before this touched me.
And this touched me deeply. All I see when I close my eyes is Hamlet, his face pressed to his father’s coat, sobbing.
This song has also been playing through my mind along with the images from the performance. The video seems a bit shallow, but the song fits how this performance made me feel.