There were a lot of reviews of Sonia Friedman’s Hamlet production floating around in the month or so preceding the moment when I would get to see it for myself. I did my best to avoid them. It’s not that I didn’t know how the play ended (spoilers – most of the characters die). It’s that I didn’t want my experience to in any way be biased one way or the other. I like to experience books, plays, movies, and music through my own personal filter, then see if I agree with other folks. Even despite my efforts to avoid the reviews, however, it was hard to avoid the sense that the production was getting dissed a little. Well, I guess that’s what happens when friends and family email you all of the reviews as they get published.
From what I gathered, there was a huge outcry because Friedman’s production actually began, initially, with the famous “to be or not to be” speech. Some Shakespearean purists of course felt this was sacrilege. There were other complaints as well, and from what I could gather they were all along the same lines. “But Shakespeare didn’t do it that way!” Well, Shakespeare also used men to play female roles. Sometimes purity can evolve into close-mindedness if you’re not careful.
Hamlet has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I have read or watched renditions of it over the course of my adult life, and each time I experience it I gather something new from it. I suppose this is not revolutionary where Shakespeare is concerned. He’s kind of a big deal, and for good reason. But I have to say that Sonia Friedman’s Hamlet, which I was privileged to attend at London’s Barbican Theater, drove home for me more than any other experience how alone Hamlet’s character truly is. Somehow I was able to see how much of a puppet Ophelia was made to be and why Hamlet had to try to distance himself even from her.
The Cumberbatch Factor
OK, the elephant in the room. Anyone who knows me knows that a large part of the appeal for me in seeing this play was the fact that I would be in the same building, nay the same room, as Benedict Cumberbatch, a man whom I much admire. Truth be known, I figured I would really just be focused on not acting like a teenaged girl during the production (I’m at the age where acting that way is getting increasingly unattractive and unforgivable). If Cumberbatch announced he was going to be reading a phonebook on a stage, I would probably try to go.
But, and this is a big but, his performance as Hamlet was good enough that for most of my time there, I was not enmeshed in the idol worship that I thought would be preeminent in my mind. His interactions with Sian Brooks (Ophelia), Leo Bill (Horatio), Jim Norton (Polonius), Anastasia Hille (Gertrude) and Ciarán Hinds (Claudius) were genuine, engaging, and they all felt real. Indeed, despite all of the attention I’m sure he felt on him, Cumberbatch was able to disappear into the play and into his character. No one could have been more surprised than me that I forgot at times who I was watching on the stage.
Oh, it’s not serious enough!
I suppose a lot of people have rolled their eyes at some of Friedman’s reimagined parts. A lot of people have talked about the clothing. Hamlet goes around in a hoodie for awhile, for example, and Horatio looks like he could have just stepped off the tube. There are scenes where Hamlet does quite silly things which were of course not specifically delineated by Shakespeare, and apparently some people have felt that these parts that stray away from the original perhaps do not show enough respect or are too modern.
The clothing was an interesting player in itself, it’s true. Some characters were in traditional garb while others were not. For me, I did not find it particularly distracting, but upon pondering it, I think it accentuates the timelessness of the story. Sure, not everyone is a prince of Denmark, but many of us have been in situations where we feel like we are crazy because no one seems to notice that which is rank and wrong. Many of the themes of the play are as relevant today as they were 500 years ago. Bringing the characters into the 21st century did not pose a problem for me.
As for the silly parts, sure, some of them may seem over the top to a high-browed scholar, but then these parts of the play also offered a welcome relief from the true feelings of pain and torture that predominated. It was pleasant to be able to chuckle at the exchanges between Hamlet and Polonius, which were played so well. Seeing Hamlet dress up as a toy soldier was unexpected, but Cumberbatch again pulled it off so that you truly felt like you were watching someone who had gone mad.
In short, I greatly enjoyed the production for itself, not just because an actor I admire was in the starring role. It is a testament to all of the players that the production can step over all of the modern day fanfare and draw the audience into Shakespeare’s world. If you happen to be in London between now and the end of October, I highly advise you to check out the play and let me know your review of it.